I graduated with my Masters in Public Policy not long ago. Among the most basic tenets of making good policy – making any good kind of decision, really – is asking the people who that policy will affect for their thoughts and contributions. There are lots of ways our sector talks about this – meaningful involvement, public consultations, community forums, roundtable discussions, client or peer-led initiatives – all of which are undertaken to consult and include people who are affected by the policies, projects and decisions in question.

But given the constantly changing landscape of homelessness in Calgary, where data is revealing new things, new projects are starting, existing programs are changing, the meaning of contribution and consultation becomes more of a process than a project. It’s not a one-time question posed to a group – it’s an ongoing, continual, iterative thing that requires constant attention.

The Client Action Committee at the Calgary Homeless Foundation was started in July 2012, as a part of the work of the Policy and Research Team. The group’s stated aim is “to engage a diverse group of individuals with lived experience of homelessness in discussions related to research priorities and implementation of strategies for Calgary’s 10 Year Plan. Opportunities are provided to share stories and develop, carry out and take part in research projects.”

And that’s what we do – each week, we take over the foundation’s boardroom with our papers, our coffee, and our stories from the week. We check in with each other, get updates from each other about where people are living, how old friends are doing, what the rough moments of the week have been, where the victories are. And then we get to work.

Over 100 people have sat at this table – some only once, some for months at a time, and a handful since the very beginning. When people come to the table, they bring the sum of their experiences: here and elsewhere, housed and homeless.

Since the committee started, the work has included a wide range of projects and research activities – doing surveys in shelters, facilitating focus groups, coding transcripts, promoting and then hosting events, speaking to committees, boards, school classrooms and elsewhere, working on documentaries, and various writing exercises.

And each time we ask the committee for their help, they show up with a tenacity and enthusiasm that is humbling to me as a researcher. When we ask for their ideas, their priorities, what they would like to focus on, ideas come tumbling onto the table, informed by their own experience and that of their peers, all aimed at justice and inclusion for the street community.

The ideas, stories, experiences and battles of that committee get back to decision-makers in a handful of ways – through direct presentations and participation, reports and research – and often, through the people who have sat with client committee itself. We approach other tables bearing those stories, as yet another piece of evidence about what is working and what isn’t, where the gaps are, and what needs to be urgently pushed forward.Engaging

Meaghan Bell and Nicole Jackson, work every week with the CHF Client Advisory Committee to ensure the critical client voice that measures the ‘on the street’ impact of the work we do has a place to be heard and acknowledged. Recently, Meaghan and Nicole invited the members of the Committee to give a noon-hour presentation on their recent findings from a Community Consultation they held to gather community feedback on the updating of the 10 Year Plan.

Of the five members of the committee who came to present, one is still living in shelter, with another individual in transitional housing waiting for a placement in permanent housing. Two of the individuals found housing through their own efforts with one being housed through CHF programming. However, one individual’s program was ending which means he is again working with an agency to secure new housing. The other is a senior who is currently on a waitlist for affordable housing as spending 60% of her income on housing is taxing her limited resoures. It is, she said, an aspect of life that is not uncommon for seniors living in poverty.

Throughout their presentation, the group was articulate, organized and passionate. Most of them have worked with the Committee for a year or more and care deeply about their peers whom they represent. This was poignantly apparent when one of the presenters talked about some of the responses attendees at the Community Consultation had written on the sheets that asked the question, “Who are you?”

“They answered, mother, father, artist, carpenter, kind, hard-working, and then one person wrote, ‘I am a human being’,” one presenter commented, obviously distressed by the answer. “Why does anyone have to write that they are a human being? Aren’t we all?”

“Several people wrote that,” another presenter chimed in.

We all share a desire to be heard, to be seen, to be known. Within homelessness however, there is often a feeling of being dehumanized, less thank, invisible.  

It is a sad reality of homelessness. The very condition that we all share, our being human, is what people often feel they lose in this place called homeless.

No matter the condition of their lives, each individual is working with the Advisory Committee to give back, to make a difference, to make life better for others. They didn’t rant and rave about the injustice of the homeless condition, they didn’t strike out against government and agencies and their fellow man. They spoke up for dignity, human caring, the right of every individual to be treated with respect, consideration and fairness.

Matt Vermunt, CHF Manager of Acquisitions and & Developments spoke for everyone present when he said, “You have helped make me become better at my job, and you’ve helped me be a better human being,” he said.

We all have a story. We all have wounds we carry close to our hearts, hurts and pains we harbour beneath our skin. Homeless or housed, we are all the same kind of different in our being human. 

The CHF’s Client Action Committee (CAC) actively conducts research, alongside the CHF Research Team. Historically, their research activities have included everything from conducting interviews, hosting focus groups, holding community forums, data entry, coding data, and subsequent analysis.

 One of our ongoing projects as a Committee this year has been to develop an understanding of homelessness and human rights – answering questions like, “What are the human rights of people experiencing homelessness? Do those rights come into conflict with other rules and regulations? How do those rights get exercised or violated in real life?” – to eventually develop some materials and resources to ensure people are informed and empowered to exercise their rights, whether they be in the workplace, in searching for an apartment, or in spending time in our city’s streets. Ultimately, this project is a reminder that all Albertans have human rights, that each Albertan is valuable and has freedoms that must be respected.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, CAC coordinated and hosted a community forum about homelessness and human rights, as a key stage in the research project and a way of ensuring that we – as the researchers – were on track with what we had heard and understood so far.

Twenty-six diverse individuals from the homeless sector and nine CAC members spent an hour at the resource space in the Memorial Park Public Library discussing and debating the issue. Each CAC member played a key role – to facilitate discussion, to distribute paperwork or take care of guests, to take notes.

It was one of the most powerful aspects of the forum –  as people talked, and relaxed, helped themselves to coffee – every person in attendance felt respected and listened to because they understood that they were meeting around the table as peers.

Everyone’s voice was equal. Everyone’s experience was real. Everyone’s story mattered.

And everyone listened with intensity, intentionality, and a passion for taking those stories forward – and then doing something about it.

At the CAC debrief after the event, the nine of us on the committee sat on the grass in the park, passing around notes from the session and soaking in the sunshine as everyone reflected back to the group their individual experiences. As always, opinions were diverse, but there was an underlying sense of victory, of success, of having accomplished something truly meaningful.

One committee member faced the group and said: “I feel great about it. I feel like we’re really doing something about these issues, y’know? …I feel empowered.”

What a brilliant moment it is when so much can be accomplished, in so many different ways, when a group rallies around the unifying goal of ending homelessness and restoring dignity and honouring our basic right to being treated fairly and respectfully as human beings.

 Article submitted by CHF Research Department — Nicole Jackson and Meaghan Bell. Special thanks to Maria, Britany and Jedd for lending a hand during the event!

Last week we met with the CHF, Client Action Committee to draft a response letter outlining recommendations for the National Housing Strategy.

Please take a few moments to read what this talented group of individuals submitted, and make your voice heard too!

You have until Friday, October 21st to participate in either an online survey or draft a submission to Letstalkhousing.ca. We encourage you to send an e-mail to your MP, or a tweet using #housing4all and #LetsTalkHousing, along with a copy of CHF’s response, expressing your support for CHF’s recommendations.

Thank you to United Way and Maytree for sharing the Let’s Talk Housing Community Conversations guide that helped our discussion!

With tears, flowers, and a song for a friend who can no longer be found, Calgarians gathered on a cold morning on October 13, 2021 for a reflective ceremony marking the installation of the city’s first and only permanent homeless memorial.

“We have monuments all over the city to the rich and powerful. I’m really pleased we now have a memorial to those who are most marginalized and who have lost their lives being marginalized,” said Counsellor Evan Woolley in an emotional tribute to those who have lost their lives while experiencing homelessness in Calgary.

The memorial, located at 107 13 Ave SE, is the culmination of a three-year collaboration between the Client Action Committee, Calgary Homeless Foundation, University of Calgary, and the City of Calgary, with the support of Canadian Artists Against Poverty, and homeless-serving agencies in the city. It was created after Calgarians experiencing homelessness expressed a need for a permanent place to remember their family and friends who lost their lives while not having a home.

In the ceremony’s introduction, Patricia Jones, President and CEO of Calgary Homeless Foundation, noted the humanity of those who had lost their lives. “It is important to remember that the people honoured today are more than a ‘number’: they were mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, children and friends of someone who loved them,” she said.

Calgary Homeless Foundation’s Client Action Committee (CAC)—a group composed of people with lived or living experience of homelessness—recognized the need for a permanent memorial site through their coordination of the annual Longest Night of the Year city-wide homeless memorial service.

In 2018, the CAC approached Dr. Jessica Shaw, who was researching end-of-life care for people experiencing homelessness at the University of Calgary. Together, they started a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds. Calgary Homeless Foundation assisted as a funder and Councillor Evan Woolley, a former Board Member with Calgary Homeless Foundation, championed the memorial with the City of Calgary, securing the site.

Three years later, in September 2021, the memorial was installed. The memorial, designed and constructed by artists who have lived or living experiences of homelessness or poverty, has three features, notably a bronze backpack on a pillar, etched with the words: “In this space, we remember and honour our neighbours, family, and friends—known and unknown—who have lived and died because of the traumas of homelessness. In past, present, and future—may they rest in power.”

The memorial also has a bench free of barriers for someone to lay down and two pillars painted with a mural embedded with phone chargers. All parts of the monument had input from people with connections to Calgary’s homeless community.

By the end of the morning, the bronze backpack, modelled after one that was carried by a member of Calgary’s homeless community for over a decade, was blanketed in fresh flowers. On the ground around the statue, messages had been left in chalk: “For Max,” “More than a number,” and “for all those who deserve more.”

“I want to one day bring my child here and tell her that it exists because we used to lose someone every three days in Calgary [to homelessness],” said Dr. Shaw.

Until then, the memorial serves as a quiet place for reflection, and as a reminder, said Patricia Jones, that the fight against homelessness is worth all of us getting in the ring for.

View the program here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Du70jQ7tJDs.

Click here for the photo gallery.

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