Winnipeg homelessness conference was well worth investment

A recent opinion piece seemed to take issue with a homelessness conference in Winnipeg. Representatives from the groups that organized the conference say it's important to speak as a community to deepen our common vision and understanding, while addressing negative misconceptions.

National conference provided 'immeasurable' learning and costs were justified, says End Homelessness Winnipeg

Liberal MP Adam Vaughan speaks at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Winnipeg on Oct. 25. An opinion piece suggested the conference could have cut costs and used the savings to help those who are homeless. But representatives from social service agencies say the learning opportunities provided were well worth the investment. (CBC)

The recent Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH) conference was a coming together of national and local sector leaders and represented several months of work on the part of dozens of people. This conference was a call to action on Indigenous homelessness in Canada and an opportunity to bring meaning to truth and reconciliation in our country.

This year's conference, hosted in Winnipeg, saw record-breaking attendance, with almost 1,100 participants. It was an opportunity for social-service workers, policy makers, funders and individuals with lived experience to come together to share knowledge and effective approaches to reduce and ultimately end homelessness in our communities.

A recent opinion piece seemed to take issue with the event, largely due to its location at the RBC Convention Centre and the lunch the author was served, rather than the content itself.

End Homelessness Winnipeg welcomed the writer of this piece as a volunteer and, in return, volunteers were provided with free access to learning sessions and conference events. What is clear is that much would have been learned from attending sessions and talking to conference attendees.

Given how important and difficult this work is, we feel it important to speak as a community to deepen our common vision and understanding, while addressing negative misconceptions.

Particularly for an event of this nature, where local and national leaders are gathering to exchange ideas and best practices, the [non-profit] sector shouldn't be shamed for hosting a high-calibre event.

Why such a nice venue? Well, many reasons, in fact. First and foremost, the sheer size and nature of the event largely dictates where it can be held, and the convention centre met all of the needs. In fact, the RBC Convention Centre exceeded our expectations and contributed a significant amount of resources and in-kind support and services.

Additionally, when an event is drawing national and international attention — some attendees came from as far as the United Kingdom and New Zealand — taking pride in our city and presenting a professional and well-orchestrated event seems more than appropriate.

There is also a need to challenge the notion that because the non-profit sector does remarkable work with limited resources, there should be an expectation that we sit in broken chairs and eat meagre lunches. Particularly for an event of this nature, where local and national leaders are gathering to exchange ideas and best practices, the sector shouldn't be shamed for hosting a high-calibre event.

At no point did attendees forget why they were there or fail to be focused on the issues of homelessness and what it looks like across the country — not even when eating their chicken and salad.

More than 50 homeless people attended

Over 50 homeless people from Winnipeg and across Canada were in attendance. In fact, 50 scholarships were given to folks with lived experience of homelessness, but far more than that were in the room. As with most social-service work, folks drawn to work in the sector often come to it because they have lived experience.

Just because workers had fees paid doesn't mean that many don't also have that first-hand knowledge. Further, this was an important opportunity for front-line staff within our community to access up-to-date evidence, Indigenous knowledge and practices, and expertise from a broad network of agencies, with the goal of improving services to the citizens they serve.

The focus of the event this year was Indigenous homelessness and a definition of Indigenous homelessness was released.

Winnipeg (muddy waters), Manitoba (where Manitou sits) was the perfect backdrop to have this important message delivered. It was also appropriate given that Winnipeg has the highest population of urban Indigenous citizens in the country and, according to the 2015 Street Census, approximately 71 per cent of our homeless population identifies as Indigenous.

The keynote speakers, many of whom had lived experience, were largely Indigenous and they delivered poignant and articulate messages. All of them were paid appropriately for their work. The conference also incorporated Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers from across Canada who were actively supporting individuals who were impacted by the event.

The feedback on the event was phenomenal and the learnings immeasurable. Much of what people spoke about were the efforts made to keep the reality of homelessness front and centre throughout the event, including having a sacred fire burning where people who are living on the street could gather and stay warm, the hosting of the CEO Sleepout during the conference, and the memorial service honoring those whose lives were lost to the streets.

Space was offered inside for a lived experience comfort room and a group of individuals with lived experience helped guide the planning process. Anyone who entered the event looking for food was fed, and elders were on hand to support those that needed it.

David McPherson was the official fire keeper outside the RBC Convention Centre for the National Conference on Ending Homelessness, held in Winnipeg Oct. 25-27. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

It was noted in the earlier piece that perhaps a less expensive venue and more modest lunches would have created an opportunity to donate funds to the organizations that are doing housing work on the ground. In reality, what is needed is large-scale investments in affordable housing, housing programming and better co-ordination of the resources available.

The need currently far outstrips the funding investment, and a lunch of soup and bread would have in no way changed this.

Actions do speak louder than words. If someone in our community is interested in seeing what action looks like on the ground, they are most welcome to visit and volunteer at one of the dozens of agencies in the city working day in and day out to house individuals, support them by whatever means necessary and challenge the systems that further entrench homelessness in our society.

One would likely learn that the few days away from the harsh realities and challenges of this work that front-line workers received in attending the CAEH conference to learn was well worth the investment.

All are welcome to work with us to move the needle on ending homelessness in our community.


Louis Sorin, president and CEO, End Homelessness Winnipeg, Inc.
Kelly Holmes, executive director, Resource Assistance for Youth, Inc.
Lorie English, executive director, West Central Women's Resource Centre
Della Herrera, executive director, Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre Winnipeg, Inc.
Damon Johnston, president, Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg, Inc.

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

About the Author

Louis Sorin

Louis Sorin is the president and CEO of End Homelessness Winnipeg. As a backbone organization, EHW works in partnership with community and agencies, funders, leadership across public and private sectors, and those with lived experience to address and bring an end to homelessness in our community. EHW and its partners were instrumental in bringing the CAEH national conference to Winnipeg on Oct. 25-27, 2017.