Full-up homelessness conference begins tomorrow

One of the largest academic conferences ever held at York begins tomorrow, fully booked, as 800 representatives from across Canada gather to tackle the problem of homelessness. From communities as far apart as Iqaluit, Halifax and Vancouver, they are coming to hear stories, share research and come up with solutions to a problem that is a national embarrassment.

Stephen Gaetz, Judy Sgro, Stan Shapson

Right: Stephen Gaetz, conference chair, with Judy Sgro, former citizenship & culture minister, and Stan Shapson, York vice-president research & innovation, at a cheque presentation in November

The Canadian conference on Homelessness, which is being organized by York’s Faculty of Education and has been more than a year in the planning, begins on Tuesday and continues through Friday at York’s Keele campus. The conference has been planned and organized by a unique partnership that includes York University’s Faculty of Education and Division of Continuing Education, the City of Toronto, University of Guelph, and the Toronto organizations Street Health, Sherbourne Health Centre, Aboriginal Legal Services, St. Michael’s Hospital, St. Joseph’s Health Centre and Centre Médico Social Communautaire.

It is part of the National Homelessness Initiative, a federal program dedicated to understanding the cause of homelessness and developing solutions to assist the homeless in Canada. The conference was made possible by two grants totalling more than $270,000 from the federal government, delivered in person by former citizenship & culture minister Judy Sgro (see stories in the May 18, 2004, and Nov. 12, 2004, issues of YFile).

The conference, which is almost twice the size of any previous academic conference held by York, is already full and has been for weeks. It’s the only academic conference in memory to be "sold-out that quickly", said Deborah Hahn, senior manager hospitality with campus services & business operations. Registration takes place in the Computer Science & Engineering Bldg. on Tuesday beginning at 6pm and events are scheduled for the Underground, CSEB, Curtis Lecture Hall, Stong College and Bethune College.

Conference Chair Stephen Gaetz, a professor in York’s Faculty of Education and researcher in economic strategies of street youth and criminal victimization of homeless people, said the conference is unique because it’s the first Canadian conference of this scale that focuses on solutions to homelessness.

"Rather than just have a conference that deals with people in the non-profit sector and their issues or one that just focuses on academic research," Gaetz said, "we tried to bring together all the stakeholders that need to be there to work on solutions." The conference is also breaking new ground by giving homeless people a role in planning and organizing the conference. "We were very conscious from the beginning that they have to be at the table to talk about solutions because they experience it directly and that voice has to be heard." he said. "They will be presenting papers and attending as delegates. We’re also going to be employing people who are homeless at the conference."

York’s faculty and staff prepare for 800 guests

In the days before the conference begins, Conference Chair Stephen Gaetz had words of praise for everyone who has worked to make it happen. "The people we have at York – from Hospitality York, Continuing Education, the Faculty of Education, Atkinson – are all outstanding. These are great people who can make things happen."

Sara Gregory, food service director for Sodexho, the York catering firm that will feed the 800 delegates over the three-day event, said that while this isn’t the biggest event they’ve handled, it’s big enough, and her staff are excited to be supporting the conference by donating reusable drinking bottles to the attendees.

The donation is part of a staff motivation program that involves giving back to the various communities that they are part of through charitable acts. The York Sodexho staff team decided to make this conference one of their target groups and raised funds to purchase the containers.

Gregory said she expects her staff will be serving as many as 525 litres of coffee, baking almost 3,000 cookies and packing 1,400 lunch boxes. The operation will also require 70 pounds of fresh fruit and about 250 person hours over three days.

The whole purpose of the conference, which is reflected in its subtitle, "Stories, Research, Solutions" is to raise awareness about local research into the causes of homelessness to the national level at a time when the federal government has signalled its intentions to tackle the problem in a substantive way. "It’s going to bolster the movement towards finding solutions that are based on knowledge rather than on ideology or whims or information that is just plain wrong," said Gaetz.

Stan Shapson, York’s vice-president research & innovation, said, "York’s collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to research allows us to develop innovative, real-world solutions to pressing urban challenges such as homelessness."

It appears the conference, which already includes 66 plenary and concurrent sessions and hundreds of research papers, will do all of that and more. Gaetz’s first clue that the conference would be popular came after he put out the call for papers and received 350 abstracts, more than three times the number he was expecting. Organizers plan to issue a plain-language summary of the conference action plan, and key themes and pieces of research will be published by the York-based Canadian Review of Social Policy later this summer.

The Canadian Conference on Homelessness is a national, cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary forum for sharing and collaboration that will explore the links between research and action. The goal is to find effective, long-term solutions to homelessness issues. The conference is meant to be inclusive, integrating the experiences and perspectives of all stakeholders and sectors, including researchers, policy-makers, service providers, and individuals who are homeless or at risk of being homeless.

"We’re tying to make the research matter and get all those stakeholders here together, eyeball to eyeball, which isn’t an easy thing logistically because people’s expectations from conferences are going to be different depending on what stakeholder group you’re part of," Gaetz said.

One of the outcomes Gaetz hopes for at the conference is a shift in how the public and government, think about the issue. "Part of the problem is, we’re doing two things," Gaetz said. "We’re collapsing the differences that exist among the homeless: Women wind up homeless for different reason than men; minorities for different reasons again. The other thing we do is we focus on how do we deal with people once they’re homeless. We need to focus a lot more on preventing homelessness, and on providing supports that help people get off the streets.

"We have to support the programs and services that keep people housed and give them adequate income and support so that they don’t become homeless, instead of imagining that we can manage the crisis by jamming people into shelters and having charity food programs," said Gaetz. "These things are absolutely important but if we want to deal with homelessness we have to think in terms of prevention."

Linda McQuaigThe conference program begins with a keynote address by author Linda McQuaig (right), titled "Resurrecting the Notion of the Common Good" on Wednesday morning. Concurrent sessions that day will focus on different aspects of homelessness such as mental health, service barriers, the justice system, health and service delivery. Other sessions will look at issues such as housing, diversity and theorizing about homelessness, the media, quality of life and stories about homelessness. One session aimed specifically at researchers and policy makers deals with issues in statistical research on homelessness. The day concludes with panel discussions and workshops.

Thursday’s events will look at the international perspectives on homelessness and other places’ approches to the problem. Concurrent sessions will look at successful models from across the country and in other countries such as Scotland, England and the US. Other sessions will focus on education, literacy and similar topics which are crucial to understanding how to prevent homelessness. Thursday’s events also include the presentation of hundreds of posters from various jurisdictions, and multi-media workshop. A film & video series will run throughout the conference.

Friday’s events feature several sessions devoted to finding solutions and include topics such as planning, policy perspectives, prevention and the role of governments.

Members of the organizing committee represented the many agencies involved in organizing the conference and came from the City of Toronto, the Sherbourne Health Centre, the Centre Médico Social Communautaire, REACH3 with St. Michael’s Hospital, Street Health, the University of Guelph, Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, St. Joseph’s Health Centre, Wellesley Central Health Corporation and York.

For a full schedule of events, visit the conference Web site.