"Networks are the way we do action-reflection, leading to innovation. Too many groups are isolated, wondering if they are doing the right thing."
Brigitte Witkowski, Supportive Housing Coalition
The Ontario Roundtable on Best Practices Addressing Homelessness brought together about 35 front-line workers from all parts of the province. As Brigitte Witkowski observed in her opening remarks, the gathering revealed what a pervasive problem homelessness has become. Downloading of formerly provincial services to municipalities in Ontario as well as the chronic shortage of affordable housing means that homelessness is no longer just a big city problem.
The event brought together people from Barrie, Brampton, Cambridge, Chatham, Hamilton, Kenora, Kingston, London, Newmarket, Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay, Toronto, Welland, and Windsor. The roundtable format made it possible for communities with less experience in coping with the needs of homelessness to learn from those with more experience. Also, those who are working in long-established programs could be refreshed by the ideas and innovations of those in newer programs.
Participants were invited to describe their motivations for coming to the roundtable. Most had come to learn: about possible resources and sources of funding, about what was working elsewhere and what pitfalls to avoid, about new ideas and gaps in service. Some were looking for opportunities to build partnership with other agencies and programs. Many people expressed the desire to talk about causes and prevention, not just band-aid solutions and to have some input into policy making. A few who were feeling the effects of burnout wanted to gain inspiration and stimulation from others.
The first task of the day was to share the "best practices" known to participants and to identify elements common to these different programs. The programs discussed included:
Participants identified a number of common elements in programs that succeeded in terms of meeting the needs of clients or achieving stated goals. Perhaps the two most frequently mentioned attributes of success were:
Other important lessons that had been learned included:
After the break, the participants re-formed into new groups to discuss the pros and cons of the best practices approach taken for this series of roundtables.
The benefits of the approach were generally felt to be the creation of universal standards and a common language for talking about solutions to homelessness. Labelling something a "best practice" can validate the work of a group and motivate others. Sharing best practices also means that people who are new to the field do not need to reinvent the wheel when they start up a new program. The approach invites reflection on what has been and can be achieved, and allows workers to develop a checklist of matters that need to be considered in creating a new program or improving an existing program.
Participants felt that the most likely use of the approach would be for funders, who could use it to evaluate programs. A program that had been identified as a best practice would have credibility with funders. Best practices should be used as a starting point, however, not as something that can be duplicated exactly in other places and situations.
Participants also had reservations about the best practices approach. Many saw it as potentially limiting, an approach that stifles creativity. They suggested that focusing on best practices can lead to cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all responses that fail to take into account the diverse problems and contexts surrounding homelessness. What works in one place may not work in another.
Others suggested that establishing best practices might simply set the bar rather than raising the bar, or even turn into the lowest common denominator in practice. They also pointed out that in talking or writing about best practices, the tendency was to focus only on the positive and to ignore problems and failures, even though these may have been crucial learning experiences. Documentation on best practices may also overlook the lengthy process that a group took to get to a successful outcome and look only at the finished product.
There is also a danger that in trying to emulate best practices, people may be tempted to deal with the easiest, most tractable problems, "creaming off" the clients with the fewest problems, and avoiding the tougher issues. Another danger is that a so-called best practice program may become entrenched and remained unchanged for years, even though the needs of its clients have changed.
One group felt that the term itself was a barrier. "Best" suggests comparisons and competition. In talking about unique programs there can be no "best" practice. Also, the competitive connotation is the opposite of the cooperation that participants identified as essential in working with the homeless. "Practices" is too static a word, focused on the past and on what already exists, rather than what might be needed in future or on gaps in service. This group suggested an alternative term workable options that suggests only "what we know works at a certain place in certain circumstances."
Some participants suggested that a "best failures" conference could be as instructive as a best practices roundtable. Others suggested that talking about "best principles" would be a more appropriate way of sharing success stories. Another group repeated the importance of involving clients and users: they should be the ones to define what is or is not a "best practice/best principle/workable option." Still others felt that networking would overcome the sense of competition and the risk of using cookie-cutter, piecemeal approaches. One group suggested that best practices should be used only to inform decision-making, not to determine outcomes.
The final part of the roundtable was a discussion on networking itself. In enumerating the benefits of networking, participants often reiterated the motivations for participating that they had mentioned at the beginning of the day: the opportunity to learn what others are doing, to build partnerships, to come together for advocacy and encouragement.
Participants listed dozens of existing networks at the local, regional, and national levels and discussed what more might be needed. Many people suggested making more use of the Internet, although not everyone has easy access to the technology. Others mentioned the fact that networking is much easier in large centres; in the north, where communities are smaller and farther apart, networking takes more planning. Some participants saw a need for an national information clearinghouse on homelessness issues. Others wanted a network that would act as a focus for promoting changes in social policy.
Throughout the day, participants made recommendations and stated messages that they felt funders, especially the government, needed to understand. At the end of the day, the group reviewed these ideas.
"Governments need to trust that communities know what they need and will use funding they receive in a way that is best for the community."
"It's important to de-emphasize the 'treatment' aspect of dealing with homelessness. We need to destigmatize homelessness and the problems that go with it."
"Planning takes time. Many funders don't realize this."
"Programs need core funding, not project funding, which is short-term and unstable."
"Relationship building is difficult and time-consuming, but essential, a fact that most funding formulas fail to recognize."
"We need a broad, non-middle-class definition of housing. In places like Toronto, where space is at a premium, we need to rethink what housing is and what it looks like. We need to keep going back to the clients for their views, for their definitions."
"We need to make allies in the government."
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