Kitchener-Waterloo

Anti-poverty strategist promotes 'Upside-Down' radical rethink

How do you solve a problem like homelessness? An Edmonton anti-poverty strategist thinks the solution lies in turning age-old thinking on the issue on it its head.

'It used to be you had to sober up or be stable or stop particular behaviours before anyone would house you'

In the 1980s, getting the homeless housed was conceived of as a necessary first step to tackling the conditions that might have contributed to them being on the street in the first place, such as addiction or joblessness, Mark Holmgren says. (Shutterstock)

How do you solve a problem like homelessness? An Edmonton anti-poverty strategist thinks the solution lies in turning age-old thinking about the issue on it its head.

It's called "upside-down thinking" and Mark Holmgren is bringing it to the 11th Annual Poverty Symposium in Kitchener Friday night, an event he says is an example of upside-down thinking in action.

"Even the event that's happening today… is kind of an example of how things have turned upside down  Holmgren told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's The Morning Edition host Craig Norris.

Local leading the way

"[It's] local communities taking the lead on poverty reduction whereas a few years ago we kind of saw it as a federal or primarily provincial jurisdiction," he said.

Holmgren works with Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement, a Waterloo-based charity organization trying to promote local collaboration to help solve complex community problems.

One of the "upside-down" solutions he's advocating was piloted in Edmonton recently when a few hundred families faced the prospect of living on the street after they were issued eviction orders.

"Instead of letting the eviction happen and then dealing with them being homeless, which is far more expensive, we came up with an approach called Community Bridge which basically paid to stop the evictions."

The result was that 260 people didn't end up on the street and Holmgren's organization could then work with families to help solve the problems that led to them being issued eviction notices in the first place.

'Disrupting' to help

Holmgren says the idea of "upside-down thinking," while perhaps a new term, goes as far back as the 1980s when anti-poverty strategists began touting the "housing-first" strategy.

"It used to be you had to sober up or be stable or stop particular behaviours before anyone would house you," Holmgren said.

The idea was that getting the homeless housed was a necessary first step to tackling the conditions that might have contributed to them being on the street in the first place, such as addiction or joblessness.

But any anti-poverty solution has its holes, Holmgren says, and the key to success is to find them and not simply focus on the positives.

"Sometimes people call some of what I talk about 'disruptive thinking,'" Holmgren said, but he finds that term gives a negative connotation to a way of thinking that's meant not to hinder but to help.

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