More than talk needed: Homelessness conference misses chance for real action

People say that actions speak louder than words, but sometimes meals do the same thing, says Susan Huebert. She argues a recent Winnipeg conference on homelessness could have made changes to help the people it was about.

Successes at conference, but some of the money spent could have been put to better use to help the homeless

A person sleeps on the pavement on Winnipeg's Maryland Street in October 2017, not far from where a national convention on homelessness was held later in the month. (Bert Savard/Radio-Canada)

People say that actions speak louder than words, but sometimes meals do the same thing.

Lunch at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness that I attended this past week in Winnipeg included salad, followed by chicken with potatoes and broccoli. Later, as I was leaving the RBC Convention Centre, where the event took place, a homeless man approached me to ask for money for food.

What's wrong with this picture?

The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness' conference dealt with many of the issues that workers in the field of poverty reduction might face. With sessions like "Introducing a New Problem-Solving Infrastructure" and "Building Research and Evaluation Capacity," much of the conference was geared toward a theoretical perspective of the issues surrounding homelessness.

However, there was also room for people who have lived on the streets to tell their stories. One of these opportunities was the Women's Theatre Collective session, in which women who have experienced homelessness told their often very emotional stories in a reader's theatre style. 

Liberal MP Adam Vaughan speaks about the federal government's upcoming national housing strategy at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness at Winnipeg's RBC Convention Centre on Oct. 25. Susan Huebert says the upscale venue placed a divide between many of the people attending and the people they were talking about. (CBC)

Organizers said approximately 50 homeless people from Winnipeg and elsewhere were expected to be part of the conference, enhancing the participants' learning with first-hand experience of living without a home of their own.

Speaking with these people could give participants the chance to learn more about the daily challenges that the poor face, whether they are struggling with long-term or short-term homelessness, in dire circumstances or managing to find at least some help.

The 2015 Winnipeg Street Census, published by the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg and conducted on the night of Oct. 25, 2015, states that approximately 1,400 people experienced homelessness in the city on that night, with 479 experiencing absolute homelessness (living in shelters or on the street) and another 921 provisionally accommodated in other people's homes, institutions, or transitional housing.

Although many agencies have worked hard to try to alleviate the problem, it has likely only worsened since then.

The purpose of an event like the homelessness conference is for workers in the field to discuss issues and to share ideas with each other, and as such, it was a success. Two participants from St. John noted that different cities have the same problems but that working together in engaged relationships can be effective, while other attendees also seemed enthusiastic. 

Part of message lost

Still, some of the attendees might have become aware of the contrast between the comfortable conditions and good food at the venue and the needy community that was just outside the doors of the convention centre.

One of the afternoon tours took participants to various sites associated with the homeless, including a parkade and a staircase only a short distance from the convention centre where people take shelter from the weather when they have no home of their own.

The conference was all about helping to solve, or at least ease, the problems that lead to homelessness, yet with all of the comforts that the participants enjoyed, perhaps a large part of the message was lost. 

Workers in these agencies need the chance to get together and to exchange ideas with each other. If the event brings new life to the struggle to end what has become an ongoing problem in Canada, it will be a success.

However, the choice of the convention centre as a venue, while practical, perhaps gave the wrong idea.

It's an upscale venue — and one that places a divide between many of the people attending and the people they were talking about.

Some formal recognition of the struggling people nearby would have given an added sense of purpose to the gathering.

If the organizers had planned for simpler meals and fewer speakers, for example, they could have used the money they saved to set up a soup kitchen for the duration of the event, or perhaps donated the savings to one of the charities that have already been established in the city.

Helping people in need involves more than just talk. It involves listening to others, taking action, and making the necessary personal changes — even just during a week like this — to help change the situation for the many Canadians struggling to prepare for winter.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Susan Huebert is a Winnipeg writer for children and adults, on topics ranging from science to current events and social justice.