Challenging exclusion: Experts with lived experience of homelessness transforming policy processes
Published on 25/02/2019
I’m honoured to have been invited to launch Maytree’s new blog series on rights-based participation of, and accountability to, people with lived experience of poverty in policy processes.
This is an important conversation, one that will require many voices and perspectives. To begin with mine is tricky, because I don’t identify as a person with lived experience of poverty or homelessness. Instead, I come to this question as an activist scholar on issues of homelessness and human rights, and as a professional, well-housed ally in struggles for housing justice.
It is from this standpoint that I have grappled with the challenges of ensuring meaningful participation and leadership by people with lived experience of poverty and homelessness in research, service provision, advocacy, and policy. Whatever I have learned has been the product of trial and error, and owes its greatest debt to lived experts – colleagues and friends who know inadequate housing and homelessness first-hand.
A key starting point in this discussion on rethinking policy processes is that inadequate housing and homelessness are matters of human rights. They violate the rights to adequate housing and an adequate standard of living that are guaranteed in a number of international covenants to which Canada is a signatory. They threaten the rights to liberty, security of the person, and life that are guaranteed in Canada’s Charter of Rights. They often result from discrimination, and disproportionately affect Indigenous peoples and members of equity-seeking groups. They limit privacy, autonomy, and self-determination, and interfere with the exercise of political and democratic rights.
In the past twenty-five years, federal and provincial governments have abandoned housing provision, cut income supports, deregulated housing and labour markets, and criminalized homelessness. These policies have generated mass homelessness, a now-epidemic social crisis so new that its name did not exist before the 1980s. To add insult to injury, when people harmed by these policies have turned to litigation to claim their rights, their own governments have argued, successfully, that their claims don’t belong in court.
In addition, people facing poverty and homelessness are often seen and treated as less worthy, less competent, and of less value than other members of society. Order of Canada recipient and activist Jean Swanson calls this “poor-bashing,” and she demonstrates how it plays out in personal interactions, in services, and at the level of policy. As a result, people facing homelessness are disenfranchised – systematically excluded from participation in the decisions that affect their individual and collective lives.
A rights-based approach to issues of housing and homelessness must therefore aim not only to fulfill material needs, but also to challenge exclusion and disenfranchisement. At a minimum, this requires participation of, and accountability to, people facing homelessness in policy processes.
Recent federal initiatives on homelessness and housing show a promising shift in this direction. The Advisory Committee on Homelessness, convened to advise Employment and Social Development Canada on its redesign of the Homelessness Partnering Strategy, included designated seats for people with lived experience. The human rights-based National Housing Strategy (NHS) will establish mechanisms through which people and communities facing housing injustice can participate in shaping and monitoring policy: a Federal Housing Advocate to support communities directly affected; a National Housing Council whose members will include lived experts; and community-based initiatives to promote inclusion and human rights. These initiatives, and others at the provincial and municipal levels, signal a new willingness of governments to invite poor and homeless people into policy processes.
This new opening raises a number of questions, both for policy actors and for lived expert advocates and their allies. A first key question is purpose: what is the intent and goal of this invitation? A second is people: to whom is the invitation issued, and how? And a third is process: in what ways does the active presence of persons directly affected transform the way in which policies are planned, implemented, and evaluated?
Being clear about the purpose of participation
When invited into policy processes, people directly affected understandably intend that their participation should transform the laws, policies, and programs that produce homelessness and poverty. But social and structural transformation tend to be out of scope for advisory committees and consultations.
People facing homelessness and policy actors alike must be clear about the purpose of the process, and the intent of the invitation to participate. Are lived experts included because their knowledge will bring urgency and realness to discussions that might otherwise devolve into horse-trading and bean-counting? Is their presence a guarantee of accountability to them and the communities they represent? Or is it just to check a box marked “community participation” on the to-do list for a program whose parameters have already been determined?
Of course, most processes sit somewhere on the middle rungs of the ladder of participation – not utterly tokenistic, and not wholly citizen-directed either. But the extent to which participation can influence the shape and implementation of policies will determine its worth for lived experience advocates. Dedicating time, energy, and resources to policy processes has disproportionate opportunity costs for individuals and organizations whose stock of these is already severely depleted.
Who should be on the invitation list
This brings us to the next question: people. In consultations I carried out with lived expert colleagues in Toronto, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, and Victoria, questions of representation and diversity in the human rights-based mechanisms of the NHS were front and centre for participants.
The discussion went something like this in every city:
The National Housing Council will include members with lived experience? A great start! How many will there be? It has to be at least two, so the person isn’t alone surrounded by professionals. Actually, it should be half the membership. And, of course, there needs to be gender balance. And representation from Indigenous communities, racialized communities, and different geographic regions. And young people, seniors, people with disabilities, LGBTQ2S people, immigrants and refugees. And different experiences of homelessness.
Which raises the question: how will those members be selected? There should be a democratic process. We should be able to choose our own representatives. Come to think of it, there should be local councils. That would allow a lot more people to participate – otherwise, how will the folks on the street and in the shelters have their say? Then the local councils could name their representatives to the national council, and the members of the national council would have somebody to report back to. And on that topic, how will the other members of the national council be selected? Whose interests will they represent?
If we take lived experience seriously as a form of expertise, then no individual can speak for everyone facing homelessness. But these conversations went farther than calling for a diversity of perspectives on advisory bodies: they demanded new approaches to participation and accountability, through which people facing homelessness could exercise their democratic rights and their power as citizens. Such approaches are key to addressing the disenfranchisement at the root of homelessness.
What the process should look like
All of this leads to the third question: process. The setting, and the way things happen, will largely determine the extent of lived experts’ influence, even if the purpose is sound and the right people have been invited. Is the process accessible to people facing homelessness?
Consideration must begin with identifying barriers affecting people with disabilities, but it can’t end there. There are also material barriers to consider. Attending national expert gatherings will be impossible for participants who don’t have credit cards to book plane tickets and hotel rooms, extra cash for restaurant meals and airport taxis. Even local meetings are out of reach for those without childcare or bus fare.
But less tangible barriers can also be built into the process itself. From obscure jargon, to unspoken dress codes, to power dynamics that amplify some voices while diminishing others, these invisible barriers can close off policy processes to those who aren’t what Toronto scholar Andrea Gunraj refers to as “model citizens”: white, middle-class, Canadian-born professionals versed in the language and rules of the policy game.
Those rules often restrict the authentic engagement of people facing homelessness. They impose a culture of politeness, professionalism, and strategic manoeuvering; disallow expressions of emotion and direct challenges to power; and confine participants with lived experience to sharing their personal stories while professional “experts” make the decisions. In these ways, they hold in place the prevailing relations of power that undergird the status quo. How effective can they be in developing policies to remedy inequities if the processes themselves replicate them?
Transforming the process
And that’s the point. Without the full, active leadership and engagement of people directly affected, policy processes will not deliver lasting, effective solutions to poverty and homelessness. In the words of Audre Lorde, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
It’s not enough to open up the rooms where policy happens. We need to literally re-arrange the furniture, as a group of lived expert colleagues did last November at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness Conference: dismantling the orderly rows of chairs, pulling them into a circle, and ditching the head table and podium altogether.
Transformation requires processes that reflect the priorities and values of people with lived experience. In the coming months, I will be gathering examples of such transformative processes from around the globe, and considering how they can be implemented in relation to housing and homelessness policies in Canada.
What is already apparent is that such processes require infrastructure and resources to support self-determining spaces, from which individuals and communities facing homelessness can build a constituency, articulate collective positions, and select representatives. Those are the spaces that will incubate truly transformative proposals.
Some day, if those of us positioned on the professional side of society’s divide are lucky, we might be invited into those spaces for a change.