Someone pointed me to an article that they considered not only a novel but also a realistic approach to the problem of homelessness – “Lived Experience Circle on Homelessness.”
It was novel because it asked the unasked question – why did nothing seem to work to alleviate the problem?
The novelty was also in the realism of listening to the “street experts” on homelessness, those who experienced it. Imagine that! Asking people who had personal experience of what the problem was and what might be the solution. Elaine McMurray, National Social Justice Committee BC/Yukon Regional Council authored a reflection for the benefit of the members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Kelowna City Council established a task force in 2017 to find solutions to homelessness as we had become a hub for the homeless and we had a real problem. The problem was not the unsightliness or other common factors but rather the frustration that nothing was working to alleviate the problem. A group of city leaders began discussions and immediately decided that a LIVED EXPERIENCE CIRCLE was critical. A convenor was hired, word was spread throughout the existing shelter system, and on the streets that their voices were needed.
The history of the process was fascinating. But more to the point were the implications she drew for the Society, and by extension, anyone who experienced their frustration.
How does this apply to SSVP?
We, as Vincentians need to listen to our families; really listen and not assume we know what is best.
- Has your conference ever asked your families what food products they really like?
- Have you asked them if they prefer gift cards instead of a food hamper or have you just decided and then proceeded?
- Have we considered cultural needs, for example providing vegetarian or even vegan hampers?
- Have we ever asked our families if they can get to the store if we give them gift cards? Or which store they prefer?
So how can we proceed? We can, and I think need to, invite (after COVID-19) a few of our families to gather and ask the questions; we need to provide a meal and an honorarium; but, most of all, we need to listen.
The meeting place needs to be neutral; not everyone is comfortable at a church hall or basement. The time of day needs to be considered based on the families in our neighborhood: working or stay at home for example. We may need to offer bus tickets or child care.
The main thing is to make ourselves welcoming and accessible.
We may not like what we hear so we need to prepare ourselves to not be defensive but to be open to their ideas. Who are the experts? We Vincentians with big hearts, or… the family receiving support?
But what we do with the information is then critical. If we continue on as if nothing ever happened, word will spread and we will lose our credibility. We may need to design several basic hampers: meat lovers, vegan, vegetarian, sugar-free, peanut free, nothing that requires refrigeration or nothing that requires a can opener, or maybe an environmentally friendly hamper with little to no plastic wrapping.
She concludes with a suggestion and an observation…
LET US ASK OUR FAMILIES AND LET US TRULY OFFER SERVICE WITH HOPE.
P.S. “Family” is defined as a person or group of persons who call and ask for our support. We do not judge based on who is part of the family, the size of the family or any other factors.