This paper is presented as part of the Working Papers series for COMM-ORG: The On-line Conference on Community Organizing and Development. Copyright is held by the author. To cite, use: [author] [date] [title], paper presented on COMM-ORG: The On-Line Conference on Community Organizing and Development.

The Homeless Men of Halifax:

Organizing for Action

Ian 'Tay' Landry, MA MSW SWC

Dalhousie University
Halifax, Nova Scotia 
Canada B3H 3J5
Ph: (902) 479-2254
Fx: (902) 479-1177

Table of Contents

The Numbers 
Causes of Homelessness 
Organizing for Change
Placing Ourselves 
Naming / Reflection 
Outcomes and Evaluation
Author Bio 


At first, organizing the homeless appears to be an overwhelming task with an unachievable goal. However, this is fatalistic. What is required is effort, ingenuity and a strong belief in the abilities of community development in order to achieve community organization for empowerment. Any worker planning to engage in such efforts requires significant preparation before making contact with potential partners and participants. Initial pre-entry tasks are deciding what I needed to know, what I needed to learn from the homeless, how I would acquire this information, what questions I needed to ask, who to ask, and when to ask them. A literature review of other homeless movements will provide background for this task. Consultation with others working on homeless action projects, in particular any homeless or former homeless people involved, will be a vital source of information.

As outsiders with little in common with the homeless, most workers will have to discover a way to gain meaningful admission to the homeless and find a way to get permission to accompany the pending process of change. This is the most volatile phase of the process. This is when the worker has the least knowledge of the issues, when they have to demonstrate their caring and competency for the first time, and when the worker lays the foundation for any future relationship.

Once all the logistical considerations such as location, time, agenda, chair, refreshments, are in place the first step in the process of change will be defining the group. The next step is to name and reflect on the problem. Next, is the creation of action strategies with specific, measurable and attainable goals.

The primary objective of these efforts will be to help the homeless organize for empowerment and mobilization. This strategy involves exploring, defining, enhancing and building on indigenous culture, the experience, expertise, knowledge, skills and abilities the homeless already have. A secondary strategy could be to work with community agencies and the homeless to accomplish some public awareness and consciousness raising. This action could serve to counter the myths about the homeless and reduce the stigma attached to homelessness. A third strategy would be to work with the homeless as a co-partner in transformational / participatory action research exploring what they see as their needs and how community agencies can best help the homeless meet their needs. The research process, as well as the information gathered could be used to assist us reach the above two goals. Funding will be an ongoing concern. In addition, an evaluation of funding sources for ease of access and sustainability will be necessary.

All too often overlooked as an important part of an action strategy is debriefing and evaluation. For this project, the homeless who participate will design a participatory evaluation process. Through this process, the homeless participants will evaluate the outcome of the strategy they design. This will include defining desired outcomes, including benchmarks, outcome targets and outcome indicators. The ultimate success will be the homeless continuing to meet and work to resolve homelessness.


Homelessness and hunger are the two most palpable indications of poverty, as well as the clearest indications of society's inability to care even minimally for its most vulnerable members (Glasser, 1994, p. 123).

Shelter is one of an individual's most basic needs. Yet, "Since the beginning of towns and cities people have been displaced from their homes for a variety of reasons, such as health and economic problems" (McCormack & Gooding, 1993, p. 33). Even in a wealthy country like Canada, every day homeless men endure the struggle of subsistence living on the street; forced to find domicile under bridges, in hallways, in abandoned buildings and in emergency shelters. Often these men have no choice but to migrate from one location to another striving to have their needs met while living out their lives on the road with no place to call home. The result is that homeless men have become one of the most disenfranchised and marginalized populations in Canada. They are prisoners of both oppression and neglect, enduring the consequences of homelessness being " more than a lack of shelter; it is powerlessness and lack of control over one's life" (Ward, 989, p. 5).

The picture of the 1930s hobo, " middle aged and elderly men who had demonstrated insufficient efforts on their own behalf and chose this way of life" (McCormack and Gooding, 1993, p. 33), unemployed and transient, is not a fitting pictorial of the homeless population in Canada. Instead, the homeless are now a more diverse group that includes families, single parents and their children, single women and youth. This group also includes a steadily increasing number of mental health service consumers and individuals with disabilities (Halsey, 1987). Some homeless people receive some form of social assistance but many do not. Some homeless people have lost their homes because of misfortune, such as fire, flood or storm. However, most have lost their residence because of economic and social hardships that make it impossible for them to obtain sufficient funds to pay for shelter. This has served to create a new found interest in the plight of the homeless as "The recent dramatic increase in the number of homeless people, the heterogeneity of this population, and the inclusion of children has made homelessness more difficult for mainstream society to ignore" (McCormack and Gooding, 1993, p. 34). However, despite this new wave of concern " the gap between these people and other societal groups has not diminished" (ibid.). Before anyone can initiate efforts to organize and mobilize homeless men, they must first have an understanding of the causes and consequences of homelessness.

The Numbers

To date there is no exact figure of the number of homeless in Canada (Ward, 1989; Mayor's Homeless Action Task Force 1999) or in Halifax (Community Action on Homeless Steering Committee, 2000). This is in part a result of the difficulty in counting the homeless but is also due to changes in the homeless population from day to day as research has " confirmed that homelessness in Canada was not limited to unemployed, middle aged, and elderly men, but included women, children, runaway youths, young adults and families" (McCormack & Gooding, 1993, p. 34). Estimates have varied from 10,000 in the city of Toronto to 10,000 in the entire country (Ward, 1989). On January 22, 1987, the Year of the Homeless, the Canadian Council on Social Development conducted a head count of people staying in 305 homeless shelters and agencies across Canada. Using an average from these counts it was estimated that 10,672 people stayed in shelters that night and that shelters provided beds for approximately 100,000 homeless people in Canada in 1986 (McLaughlin, 1987). The homeless who did not stay in shelters that evening were not counted (Ward, 1989). Although there is no decisive measure of the numbers of homeless men, it is clear that the numbers are increasing (Ward, 1989; Community Action on Homeless Steering Committee, 2000). This research has also revealed that the homeless population contains some of the most marginalized, oppressed, disempowered and disenfranchised people in Canadian society.

Causes of Homelessness

Homelessness has a variety of causes (Ward, 1989; Community Action on Homeless Steering Committee, 2000). The Mayor's Homeless Action Task Force of Toronto states that the causes of homelessness include lack of affordable housing, increased poverty, and social factors (p. v). McCormack and Gooding concluded that " the homeless state has been created by having no place to go, being unemployed, experiencing family difficulties, participating in substance abuse, being evicted from affordable housing, having health deficits, and / or dealing with wanderlust" (1993, p. 44). However, this emphasis on the multiplicity of causes has only recently been developed (Struening & Padgett, 1990). Accordingly, these lists are not exhaustive and continue to ignore the political dynamics and structural power inequities inherent in Canadian society.

A shortage of affordable housing is one key factor underlying homelessness. Even in Halifax, where until recently there was a relatively high vacancy rate " the lack of safe, accessible housing is the number one challenge facing low-income, single individuals. In fact, people chose lack of housing as the number one challenge over government cutbacks, educational and employment opportunities, and even nutrition. ("Streetwise", September 2000, p. 2). Canceling of federal social housing programs by the Government of Canada resulted in a dramatic shortfall in the availability of affordable housing as the population of persons living in poverty increased. This cancellation also spawned a decline in funding for maintaining social housing built previously. With reduced funding for upkeep and repairs, housing authorities began to leave units lie vacant once the residents moved out, instead of preparing them for new tenants. This further added to the lack of affordable housing. While alone the lack of affordable housing does not fully explain the phenomenon of homelessness, the fact remains that shelter residents are unable to find suitable housing. They remain in supposedly temporary and emergency shelters long-term; forcing others that need emergency shelter to be turned away (McLaughlin, 1987; Ward, 1989).

Increasing globalization, privatization (Fisher & Karger, 1997) and the move toward a fully industrialized capitalist free-market economy has led to changes in employment patterns with a strong correlation between homelessness and the demand for labour (Ward, 1989) over the last century. The result is a dramatic impact on the numbers of persons living in poverty and homeless numbers as permanent, sustainable positions paying living wages are replaced with short-term, contractual, low-paying, no benefit positions. Many men who are now forced to use shelters previously supported themselves on casual and seasonal labour, but these jobs were eliminated as labour intensive positions become more mechanized. This has created a growing labour pool of men who do not have the skills required to work in the evolving labour market (Ward, 1989; Mayor's Homeless Action Task Force, 1999).

A lack of political will has also played a role, as housing for the poor and homeless remains low on the political agenda. Increasing government debts, slow economic growth, international influences and pressure from a misinformed public has resulted in reductions in social spending at a time when what is needed is an increase in funding for social programs. All levels of government have adopted austerity budgets to curtail spending. As a result reductions in, and elimination of, housing programs has caused further suffering to those already living in poverty. Many individuals and families have been pushed out of their homes and onto the street (Mayor's Homeless Action Task Force, 1999).

Deinstitutionalization of persons with mental illness has also contributed to the swelling ranks of the homeless. Mental health service consumers now make up a sizable portion of shelter users and, often being long-term residents, cut down on spaces available for others. Large mental health facilities closed during the 1960s and 1970s, following the advent of new drugs for treating mental illness. The expectation was that the consumers would live in the community in 'regular' housing, supervised housing, small option homes or group homes. Treatment of these consumers would occur in community-based, outpatient mental health centers. Unfortunately, governments did not follow these consumers into the community with adequate funding to make this potentially beneficial system work. The consequence is that there are increasing numbers of mental health service consumers among the homeless. Even those who were able to secure placements in community-based housing or boarding homes often find it difficult to live according to community expectations because of their illnesses. They end up evicted from their 'homes' without other housing arrangements in place. Therefore, they have no choice but to seek accommodation in emergency shelters. Unfortunately, most homeless shelters do not have staff trained to work with any mental health issues, creating fear that they will be unable to deal with problematic behavior if it arises. This makes them reluctant to take in mental health service consumers. This is extremely unfortunate as their fear is more a result of myths, fallacies, assumptions and stereotypes than actual experience working with this segment of the population (McLaughlin, 1987; Ward, 1989; Grob, 1994; Mayor's Homeless Action Task Force, 1999). Most shelters are not prepared to house persons with disabilities nor willing to serve persons with criminal records.

Shelter living is not a chosen lifestyle. Often by the time a person reaches the decision to resort to staying in a shelter, they have nowhere else to turn for support. They have already moved several times, having exhausted the time they could stay with friends or relatives, and even reside in motor vehicles or tents during the warmer months. Those homeless men that do gain access to emergency shelter frequently find that conditions in the shelter are little better than conditions on the street. Often they end up suffering further physical and mental stress because of shelter conditions. Men's shelters are generally in worse condition than women's shelters, which receive six times the funding per person. Many men's shelters are in old buildings, including former warehouses and factories. There is little privacy because the beds are set up as in dormitories, often double stacked. Shelter staff often interfere with how the residents live their lives. Dirt, lice, scabies, malnutrition and odor are common (Anderson & Koblinsky, 1995; McLaughlin, 1987; Ward, 1989). Because of the living conditions in the shelters, homeless men often have a higher number of respiratory infections and other illnesses (Anderson & Koblinsky, 1995). They are more susceptible to certain diseases, have greater difficulty getting health care, and are harder to treat than other people, all because they lack a home" (Institute of Medicine, 1988, p.103). More specifically, a lack of adequate housing increases the homeless individual's risk of " arthritis, emphysema, high blood pressure, respiratory problems, skin infections and colds than the general population, mainly because they have no place in which to live, to clean themselves and to eat regular meals (Begin, p. 8). In part, the reason for the difference between men's and women's shelters is the erroneous idea that men are to blame for their homelessness and thus are more stigmatized by it. Conversely, the perception of homeless women is that they are victims of society, or of men. Thus, homeless women are deemed worthier of assistance and suitable shelter.

Homeless men also suffer socially, as the feeling of not having roots has dramatic effects. Those new to homelessness see this lifestyle as only temporary. People and places come and go, sense of space and possession become diminished. Begin states that

Homelessness implies more than an absence of four walls and a roof. Homelessness produces profound social dislocation and is associated with the absence of a role in the community, privacy and security. Homeless people lack a base from which to work, go to school, receive training, sustain social contacts, receive social services, and provide and receive nurture (1996, p. 2).

Historically, efforts made to solve homelessness by the agencies and organizations that serve this population are paternalistic. The basis for these efforts stems from the assumption that the homeless do not have the abilities to help themselves. There is also a belief that the urgency of finding a solution to the homeless problem requires immediate professional intervention. The Mayor's Homeless Action Task Force in Toronto cited six major barriers to resolving the homeless problem. These included: jurisdictional gridlock and political impasse; dramatically increasing poverty; decreasing supply of low-cost housing; emergency bias; inadequate community programs and supports for people with mental illness and addiction problems; and no capacity for coordination (pp. v-vi). Such conclusions locate the government and service providers as part of the homeless problem, as oppressors of the homeless. By providing services to the homeless, while ignoring the potential to organize and mobilize homeless men to work as part of the solution to homelessness, serves to promote ongoing dependence (Ward, 1989). This perpetuates the view of homeless men as either powerless victims or as romantic and heroic survivors, creating a 'homeless role' akin to that of the 'sick role' that is manifest with illness. These men have already begun to accept such a role as they are more likely to see their homelessness as resulting from personal failure, as if "they have reduced themselves to a marginal place in society" (Ward, 1987, p. 11). This belief is perpetuated despite ample evidence that the major causes of homelessness in men are economic, the manifestation of class position and powerlessness (Ward, 1987).

"We live in a society, a world in fact, that is based on class, gender, race, and other differences" (Lee, 1992, p. 1). Homelessness is no exception. It is a structural problem, not an individual problem (Ward, 1989). As such any analysis of the causes needs to primarily focus on the social environment, the contributing social factors and the external and internal political situation (Lee, 1992), not the individual. In addition, an examination of individual factors must occur. However, they cannot be the focus of the analysis and must be examined and resolved separately and in a way that does not blame the individual in order to avoid discouraging participation (Ward, 1989).

Most services for homeless men follow a charitable model. Professionals design and provide services with little or no consultation with those they serve. Such systems tend to oppress further the recipients by placing them in a disempowered position below those providing the services. Patronization of homeless men in this position frequently occurs. Their abilities are devalued and dismissed. The perception of them as unable to make important decisions for themselves proliferates. (Ward, 1989). Such an approach is often also paternalistic, devaluing the homeless men's efforts and abilities to identify and solve their problems (Ward, 1989).

The focus of most services for homeless men has been on rehabilitation. This approach further individualizes and stigmatizes the problem and promotes a belief that changes in the individual, rather than socio-economic changes, provide the best solution. A rehabilitative approach belittles the individual, being "a euphemism for total control of the powerless" (Ward, 1989, p. 111) removing the possibility of the homeless defining what their needs are or of collective power (Ward, 1989).

A perceived need for social control also contributes to the problems faced by homeless men. Often, restrictions are placed on their rights and privileges by the professionals who 'knows what is best for them' as they are relegated to position of client.

The list of socio-economic factors contributing to homelessness varies by location and across time. Some of the socio-economic factors which contribute to the homelessness of men in Halifax (discussed in the introduction) include; lack of affordable housing, industrialization, capitalism, globalization, mechanization of labour, government cutbacks, social services reform, and unequal distribution of power in society (Lee, 1992).

While they are not the roots of the homelessness problems, individual factors can contribute to sustained homelessness. Such individual factors include a lack of self-confidence and low self-esteem which, often the result of the detrimental effects of being homeless (Ward, 1989).

This perception of personal failure may be one of the reasons there has been little success in organizing homeless men (Ward, 1989). This is extremely problematic, as homeless men need to be deliberately involved in any action aimed at solving homelessness in order for it to be successful. The Community Action on Homeless Steering Committee states that the "Ways to reduce homelessness in Halifax should take on a community-wide approach" (p. 6). Unfortunately, except for the focus groups the homeless were invited to attend, there is no mention of including them in this effort. This is extremely problematic as the only way to achieve a sustainable solution to homelessness is to have the homeless become the driving force behind the process. Therefore, those who are driven to help end homelessness must take the time, and make the effort, to help the homeless organize for empowerment and action. Only then can the homeless cultivate full civil, political and social citizenship for themselves and obtain the rights, privileges and responsibilities that go along with this status. I will be taking such time, making such an effort, over the next six months.

Organizing for Change

At first, organizing homeless men to "redress power imbalances in society " (Lee, 1992, p. 30) appears to be an overwhelming task with an unachievable goal as 'The homeless are often believed to be an impossible group to organize, owing to the uncertain circumstances in which they live" (Ward, p. 15). However, to believe this is to be fatalistic. What is required is " extra effort and ingenuity " (Ward, p. 15) as well as a strong belief in the abilities of community development to achieve community organization for empowerment (Lee, 1992) through social action (Rothman, 1995; Weil, 1996).

Any worker planning to engage in such efforts requires significant preparation before making contact with potential partners and participants. An initial pre-entry (Lee, 1992) task is deciding what I need to know, what I need to learn from homeless men, how I will acquire this information, what questions (Lee, 1992) need to be asked, who to ask and when to ask them. A literature review of other homeless movements will provide background for this task. Consultation with others working on homeless action projects, in particular any projects in which homeless or former homeless people are involved, will be a vital source of information. However, before I can ask the homeless men any questions I first have to gain access to them.

As an outsider with little in common with the homeless, I will have to discover a way to gain meaningful admission (Rivera & Erlich, 1998). This will be some point of contact and entry (Lee, 1992) with the homeless men of Halifax, a way to get permission to accompany the pending process of change. This is the most volatile phase of the process. This is when I have the least knowledge of the issues, when I have to most demonstrate my caring and competency for the first time, and when the foundation of any future relationship is laid (Lee, 1993). Ways will have to be found to create a " cooperative and reciprocal bond with the group as a whole and with each person in it" (Simon, 1994; 9).

Finding a host facility located in a part of the city with a substantial concentration of both homeless men as well as services frequented by them will accomplish the first step in this process. Then, to become more familiar to the homeless men who access the services of the agencies in this community, I will spend time in each agency that serves the homeless. This will allow me to familiarize myself with the services each agency provides. It will also allow both the staff and the homeless men who access their services to become familiar with me. The staff of the agencies can provide information on, and introductions to, homeless men who may be willing to become key informants.

Once I have become familiar with the agencies and homeless men have become familiar with me, and I have been introduced to key informants, the work can begin on organization and development (Lee, 1992) of the group. This involves establishing rapport and building trust with key individuals by inviting them to discuss their concerns and needs with me, and explaining the purpose and goals of the project. Once this is achieved then the key informants, if interested, can begin seeking out other volunteers who wish to be involved from the population of homeless men. Utilizing members of the homeless community as key informants is the most important and influential method to disseminate information about the project, and a way invitations to participate to other members of their community with whom they have contact can be extended. Agency staff can also inform homeless men about the project and invite their involvement. Advertising in local homeless newspapers may increase coverage. Posters can provide information in agencies frequented by homeless men as well as in areas with public access. Public service announcements on television and radio may be of use in obtaining the involvement of the homeless individuals who have access to these forms of media.

Agency / community meetings will have to be inviting and warm to attract the participation of homeless men. In part, this can be accomplished by holding them in familiar settings " where the people are" (Lee, 1992, p. 57) and where the participants may feel safe, such as community agencies where they commonly gather. The physical setting of the area to be used must be attractive and of an appropriate size. This would including sufficient and comfortable seating with rooms for small group work (Lee, 1996). There must also be wall space for hanging flipchart paper or newsprint and all equipment needed must be available and in working order (Lee, 1996). The choice of starting time is also important to increase attendance. With many homeless men eating at soup kitchens it is important that the meetings be at times that ensure that the participants will have an opportunity to eat before the meeting. It will also be important to provide assurances that they will not miss any opportunities to have a meal because of a meeting. Perhaps this could be done by planning the initial meetings for shortly after lunch or after supper and then adjusting the times of the meetings as appropriate. If possible, participants will have access to refreshments during the meetings.

It would be useful to have a respected staff person from a host agency in attendance to welcome the participants in partnership with me. Such a welcoming will provide an additional sense of familiarity as well as establish an initial sense of legitimacy for me. However, this welcoming will have to be carefully constructed. There is a risk that the association between the agency staff and myself will result in the perception that I am in a position of power over the homeless men. This is even more possible if the staff person is in a position of power. This perception would be extremely counterproductive to the process. Only when such structural imbalances are reduced can empowerment begin to occur (Simon, 1994). Therefore, every effort must be made to avoid such a perception by having the welcoming establish an open, informal and equitable meeting atmosphere. This will create a setting for the meeting that is " inclusive and participatory with particular attention given to minimizing status differences between professionals and community members" (Staples, 1999, p. 64). A basis for egalitarian format needs to be established. This would include a process to ensure consensual decision making as well as resolving internal conflict and opposition (Lee, 1992).

A preplanned agenda may seem too formal for agency / community meetings where I am trying to create a feeling of openness and invitation to homeless men. However, an agenda can be organized to provide an initial outline and necessary structure to ensure the meeting remains on track (Ward, 1989) in order for time to be used productively. It can also be open and adaptable to change during the meeting in order to meet the needs of the participants.

The role of chairperson is important to the success of any meeting. The chair ensures the meeting occurs according to the agenda. They also summarize the key points of the discussion to the participants' satisfaction prior to moving onto the next agenda item. In addition, they ensure an appropriate level of formality and work to involve all participants, ensuring that they each have the opportunity to speak (Ward, 1989). If possible, the chair of the initial meeting will be one of the key informants from the homeless community. This may involve some skills training and practice with me before the meeting. If a key informant who is willing to take on this task cannot be found then I can initially take on this role until a member of the community can be encouraged and prepared to take it over. If there are interested volunteers in attendance an election of a chairperson can occur at the beginning of the meeting. If not, a key informant or I can continue to chair. The staff member can act in an informal supportive role and encourage the involvement of the participants if those in attendance feel safe having a staff person involved.

A scribe is an important part of the meetings. This person writes key points on a flipchart in order to keep a rough outline of the progression of the meeting. Such a record provides legitimacy and concreteness to the meeting and, once typed up and distributed to the participants, provides reminders of tasks to be done as well as dates, times and locations of future meetings. A key informant would be an appropriate choice for this role until other participants are interested, or if no one were available or interested, the staff person or I would take on the task. At future meetings this task could be rotated between any participants who expressed an interest (Ward, 1989).

Time must be set aside on the agenda of the first meeting of a particular group for an appropriate activity that will assist the participants to begin to get to know each other. Such an activity will also be important any time a number of new members join a group. Such an ice-breaking exercise can help to relax the participants and promote a sense of respect, inclusion (Ward, 1989) and cohesiveness (Lee, 1992). The meetings should be as long a necessary to thoroughly cover the necessary tasks but as short as possible to help ensure people do not leave during the meeting and will be willing to return to any future meetings. The first meeting may be somewhat longer due to the time allotted to welcoming introductions and any introductory exercises (Ward, 1989). A specified end time should be a part of the notices of the meeting in addition to the agenda so that the participants will be aware of the time demands involved. Those in attendance can modify the scheduled start and end times by consensus.

Appropriate humor is an essential ingredient in any meeting. It is important for all involved to be able to laugh along with others. The best response to some situations is laughter. Trying to work through them following a serious line just leads to further difficulty. Laughter is also a great tool for breaking down barriers and building a sense of commonality within a group.

Placing Ourselves

The first step in the process will be defining who we are as group. This will include defining who I am so that I can put my beliefs, values and biases out in the open. It also involves the homeless men of defining who they are in order to seek out similarities to use in establishing a discussion of common issues. Although time consuming, this is an important step in ensuring the homeless men feel that who they are and what they have experienced are important parts of the process, and are valued by myself and each other. This will help the homeless to begin to develop a sense of ownership of the project. I must display my belief in the intrinsic worth of each participant. This will help to prevent the development of paternalistic behavior which is often seen in charity service providers (Ward, 1989).

My initial interest was in completing a six-month Field Instruction placement (400 hours) for the Maritime School of Social Work Masters Degree program. My initial objective was to work directly with the homeless men of Halifax in and through community agencies. Additionally, I wanted to work with the Community Action on Homelessness Workshop planning Committee and the Homeless Network in order to increase my exposure to the issues faced by both the homeless as well as organizations which provide services to this population.

However, the more I became involved in homelessness the more my interest grew. I decided to utilize the opportunity to have homelessness become the focus of a research project for a social work research methods course. This allowed me to dedicate additional time to my efforts and resulted in a paper titled From The First Voice: An Exploration of the Supports Required by the Homeless Men of Halifax to Participate in the Upcoming Community Action on Homelessness Workshop. In addition, upon the successful completion of my 400-hour field placement and the research paper I decided to continue as a member of the organization committee for the Workshop and remain a member of the Homeless Network.

I chose to work with the homeless men of Halifax for several reasons. I am a person with a disability and a single parent who spent the last 13 years living in poverty, including the last 5 years living in provincially owned low-income public housing. I have also been on and off social assistance including being homeless for 3 weeks in Dec 96 / Jan 97. This contributed to my decision to become an anti-poverty activist, becoming involved in such groups as the Halifax Anti-Poverty Network and the National Anti-Poverty Organization, as well becoming a social worker. I am also a mental health services consumer and a mental health advocate. I was previously a member of the Nova Scotia Hospital Community Participation Committee, the Nova Scotia Hospital Board of Management, and an educator with the Canadian Mental Health Association, Nova Scotia Division. Currently, I am a member of the Mainland South Mental Health Roundtable and have completed research in the area of mental health and mental illness. Throughout the process I need to remain self-aware (Lee, 1992) by continuously re-examining my own beliefs, values, goals and objectives.

Reflecting back on my involvement in the homeless efforts, I can see how much my beliefs about the homeless have changed as a result of my learning. I am amazed to see the effort that homeless individuals have to make just to survive from day to day, how the homeless expend so much time and energy and endure so much oppression and in order access the services of some agencies.

I learned that homeless are an extremely heterogeneous population. They are not all uneducated and unskilled as they are most often portrayed in the media and even in some academic writings. Instead, they have different levels of skills, abilities and deficits, ranging from highly educated, skilled and experienced people to those who had not completed primary education and had no employable skills.

I have had the pleasure witnessing the endurance and coping skills that homeless individuals have developed. I have also been granted the opportunity to see the strengths of not only the individuals but also of the relationships and networks that have been established between homeless individuals. These strengths include their willingness to support and assist each other whenever possible.

Tragically, I have also have also seen the fear of the pending cutbacks, and changes in service, that social services reform has caused. This fear has had a detrimental impact on the emotional and psychological well being of homeless individuals as well as the moral of the population. Accordingly, I have also learned how political homeless is, how the proposed programs are based on political agendas rather then true concern for the homeless and how these political games need to considered when planning any strategy or action.

The homeless men of Halifax are a typical homeless population in that they are an undefined and unresearched heterogeneous group. As with all homeless populations "each cluster of homeless individuals has its own distinctive demography, epidemiology, and history " (Bachrach, 1984, p. 916). One constant of this group is that they are men. A second constant is that they are homeless. Another constant is change. At the population and individual level their situation can, and often does, change from day-to-day, and sometimes hour-to-hour. Stigmatization, segregation and alienation from the general population are also common characteristics, as is being seen as 'other' and of less value then the remainder of society. Other than that, the characteristics of this population are as changeable as Nova Scotia weather. It contains members of various skills, mental health, physical ability, socio-economic background, education level, spirituality / religious belief (or non-belief), ethnicity, marital status, credit history, addiction issues, place of birth, age, height, weight, health, and sexual orientation. The members of this group are at various levels of housing and various levels of hunger. Finally, some are new to homelessness and some have been homeless most of their lives. Once those who wish to be involved in the action strategy come together they can define the composition of their group and begin a community analysis (Lee, 1992)

Naming / Reflection

In the naming / reflection section of the process the problem is identified in a process that continues to involve homeless men, providing an opportunity for those involved to raise their level of knowledge of the problem (Ward, 1989). This can be accomplished by inviting homeless men to open agency / community meetings where they and I can have a brainstorming session (Lee, 1996). This may involve techniques such as community sketching (Lee, 1996) to bring forth their common concerns (Ward, 1989). The facilitator ensures that each participant has a chance to state what he sees as the problem with no criticism from the other participants. A recorder can use flipcharts to record the information provided. Some possible issues that may be raised include: lack of shelter; inadequate shelters; lack of suitable gathering / meeting places; shelter staff too busy to deal with homeless issues; lack of long-term affordable housing; cancellation of the national housing program; lack of maintenance in provincially owned low income public housing; welfare restructuring; government funding cutbacks and / or reductions in community-based services.

During each meeting, I would also provide the homeless men with any information I have collected through literature reviews and discussions with agency staff. This would include how the government of Canada has created the National Secretariat on Homelessness and set aside $753 million for combating homelessness across the country. Distribution of information and updates on the ongoing efforts to solve homelessness in Halifax could also occur at these meetings. This effort would be spearheaded by representatives from community groups and government agencies who have formed the Steering Committee on Community Action on Homelessness. This social planning group (Lee, 1993; Weil, 1996) has access to funds in the amount of $5.7 million over the three years to allocate to projects which aid the homeless of Halifax, as laid out in their Community Action Plan. The goal of the plan is to " stimulate thinking on homelessness in Halifax, provide some priorities and to move forward so that the Community can work together in order to reduce homelessness in Halifax" (Community Action oh Homelessness Steering Committee, 2000). Unfortunately, there has been an omission of the homeless from this process and they have no representation on the Steering Committee.

At each meeting, I would have the participants' work to reduce the problems they put forward down to a list of five. Depending on the literacy level of the participants a process such as dotmocracy or other voting tool may be used. The scribe or chairperson can record the scores for each problem on a flipchart. Then the total score for each item, taken from the list constructed at each meeting, is calculated. The item with the top score then moves forward in the process. Following such an approach "Moves the process toward an agreed definition of the problem" (Ward, 1989, p. 39). Also, while it appears to be overly complicated and time consuming, such a process helps "People feel some sense of ownership of the problem through this lengthy but useful process since they had a hand in its identification" (Ward, 1989, p. 39).


Action strategies can be developed in various ways and have numerous goals. Action strategies for the homeless most often come from government or community agencies and rarely involve the homeless themselves. Most often such strategies deal with the acquisition of new housing - in particular emergency shelter - and not with organizing the homeless to help themselves. Popular action strategies (Lee, 1992) come from those people who will be impacted by the strategies, in this case homeless men.

No single strategy has the ability to organize and mobilize the homeless. A multi-step approach is required. Accordingly, action strategies can produce more than one result so the interrelationships among objectives (Lee, 1992) need to be examined to determine which strategy will result in reaching the most possible objectives. One of the important factors to consider is that the strategy used must re-establish the self-confidence and self-esteem of the homeless. This may occur by providing opportunities for the re-emergence of dormant skills by utilizing the strengths and abilities of the homeless men (Ward, 1989). This will provide each participant with the opportunity to use and teach others the abilities they have. For this to occur the strategy must be collective and involve all the homeless men that are interested. It must be collaborative, and all those involved must be a part of the ongoing process of " reciprocity of effort, ideas, resources, and, most important respect" (Simon, 1994). It must be contextualized, framed within the life experiences and the scope of the problems faced by the homeless. The strategy must also be concrete, not abstract and philosophical. In addition, it must be possible and measurable in ways that that will help the homeless see the value of taking cooperative action to get their needs met. The strategy must " connect the individual and the collective, the personal and the social" (Fisher & Karger, 1997, p. 45). Finally, all strategies must be grounded in theory (Ward, 1989), integrating practice with knowledge (Fisher & Karger, 1997). It is important to specify how tasks and actions are to be completed, by whom, when and where, what methods or mechanism are to be used, and what supports will be required.

The primary objective (Lee, 1992) will be to help the homeless men become organized for empowerment (Lee, 1992) and mobilization. This objective may include gaining representation on the Community Action on Homeless Steering Committee if the homeless men involved choose to make this part of the action. However, this goal may meet with some resistance from the Committee members or agency staff. If such resistance does occur strategies such as education of the Committee members or agency staff, role negotiation, mediation, circle conferencing, will have to be utilized to overcome it (Lee, 1993). With some luck and a lot of hard work by the participants this effort may even eventually lead to the hiring of some homeless men to work for the Committee.

If there is sufficient time, the focus could switch to a secondary objective. This would be to work with community agencies and homeless men to accomplish some public awareness and consciousness raising in order to counter the myths about homeless men and reduce the stigma attached to homelessness. We will work to develop a communication strategy that will not only utilize the local homeless media but also the mainstream media.

Finally, if time permits, work could begin on a third objective. This strategy would involve working with the homeless men of Halifax as a co-partner in transformational / participatory action research exploring what they see as their needs (Ward, 1989). This action research may also examine how best the Committee and community agencies can help the men meet them. Focusing on one of the general groups within the population of the homeless eliminates spurious and confounding variables that may be involved in the causes of, and solutions to, homelessness in women, youth and families. Focusing primarily on one location reduces the influence of such variables as geography, weather and differences in national, provincial and local policies and services. Several data collections would be used in order to increase the viability and reliability of the results. Surveys allow fast, cheap input from a large population. As many surveys as possible will be completed in private by the participants, but when necessary because of literacy or other issues, some can be completed with the assistance of the researcher. Focus groups allow for the gathering of substantial amounts of detailed data. Focus groups also provide this data more expediently than individual in-depth interviews. Agency meetings will allow homeless individuals to voice their needs within a familiar physical environment. Homeless individuals not attached to community agencies will have the opportunity to voice their concerns at community meetings. Interviews allow in-depth exploration through the collection of personal narratives. While various sampling techniques are available, the most appropriate for this population are snowball and convenience sampling. The process, as well as the information gathered, can be used to assist us in reaching the above two goals.


Funding is an ongoing concern for most social change movements. While there is currently an influx of financial support for homeless projects in Halifax, that does not mean that funding will be made available to a group of homeless men trying to organize to help themselves resolve homelessness. As with any local group working on homeless issues, they have the option to apply to the Community Action on Homelessness Steering Committee. However, exploration of other options must occur. Consideration of alternative sources of funding, some less appropriate and less viable than others, needs to occur. These include; continued individual efforts such as panhandling, membership dues, holding special community events, writing grant applications to philanthropic foundations, submitting proposals to business and other private sector organizations, applying to churches or church groups, requesting funding from sympathetic social agencies, or seeking out support in kind (Ward, 1989). Initially support in kind may be the most appropriate source for the task of organizing homeless individuals. What is most needed is access to a photocopier for posters, appropriate and safe locations for meetings, some refreshments, a flip chart and markers. If the participants propose additional actions or activities, then they can seek additional sources of funding and other resources. However, both the proposed actions and resource and funding source would have to be acceptable to the participants.

The important leverage point for the initial organizing of the homeless is the support of the local community agencies and organizations that serve them. These agencies and organizations will serve as the base from which I perform tasks as well as the locations for the first round of meetings. These meetings will help the group acquire its next leverage point, strength in numbers. As the group grows, gains momentum and decides to move on to additional strategies they can seek additional leverage points. These may include: support from other homeless organizations; joining national or global homeless social movement groups; seeking the support of labour and unions; increasing membership; working with additional community agencies; obtaining the support of government employees; government department managers and finally bureaucrats; pursuing the support of sympathetic politicians earning professional support from social worker; health care workers and other professionals; striving for community support; soliciting the support of the private sector and defining and exploring other appropriate supports

There is an important caveat to these actions. When developing strategies it is imperative not to build false hope. This can be difficult as a worker will want to avoid building false hope but will not want to appear to be discouraging the homeless men from taking action and becoming involved.

Outcomes and Evaluation

The objective (Lee, 1992) of this action strategy is to bring the homeless together to work towards defining and meeting their needs. Successful examples include SPACE and the Dixon Hall-Cityhome Housing Project (Ward, 1989). One outcome of this strategy may be having homeless representation on the Community Action for Homeless Steering Committee if the participants define this as one of their goals.

All too often debriefing and evaluation (Lee, 1992) is overlooked as an important part of an action strategy. This phase includes discussions of who did what, where was it done, how it was done, was it enjoyable, was it fun, was it successful, what failed, what changes need to be made, who else needs to become involved, what others supports are needed, etc. This is also the time to begin a discussion of what can be done next, if anything, or to plan for termination (Lee, 1992). For this project, the homeless who participate will design a participatory evaluation process. Through this process, the homeless participants will evaluate the outcome of the strategy they design. This will include defining desired outcomes, including benchmarks, outcome targets and outcome indicators (United Way of America, 1996).

The participants will determine the definition of a successful outcome of the strategy. For this work, completion of the process itself will be a success, as it will have brought together homeless individuals to share their problems and find some commonalties. The ultimate success will be if those who participant in this process continuing to meet and work to resolve homelessness as ' strong, inclusive people-directed organizations" (Lee, 1993) after the completion of my field instruction. An additional success will be if the agencies involved take continue to provide the resources and support that they did during the six-month period as.

Some appropriate outcome measures include; the number of homeless men attending each agency / community meeting, the number of homeless men involved in the project, the number of homeless men on the Committee. Being only able to postulate ideal outcomes that the worker hopes will occur, without any input from homeless men at this point, makes is impossible to predict, let alone hypothetically analyze all possible outcomes.

Once an evaluation of the results of the strategy is completed, the participants may choose to move on to additional action. These future actions may include; developing a communication network (Lee, 1992) seeking out other allies, demonstrations (Lee, 1992), protests, petitions, consciousness raising with the general public using popular education techniques, additional homeless driven media such as a radio show or homeless radio station, getting positive attention from mass media outlets, homeless representation in political parties or independent homeless candidates in elections, educational programs for community organizations and government agencies, community economic development and finding ways to make the 'system' work for homeless men instead of further oppressing them (Ward, 1989). The participants will explore and evaluate the specific tactics and tasks involved in accomplishing each of these actions.

An Initial Outcome

On September 13th and 14th, 2001, the Halifax Community Action on Homelessness hosted its first annual workshop, 'Through the Community Lens: Update, Lessons Learned, and Next Steps'. The purpose of this workshop was to explore and discuss issues of homelessness and affordable housing. The 140 participants included services providers, representatives from various governmental departments and 35 persons who were, or had been, homeless. The goal was to evaluate the accomplishments of the Community Action on Homeless to date and to develop a plan of action to move forward to address homelessness in Halifax.

On Friday morning a Community Voice Panel consisting of five persons who were, or had been, homeless, representing youth, women, and children, and persons with multiple-needs presented their narrative to those in attendance. The panel discussed how community actions empowered them to address their homelessness.

While each story was unique, there were consistent messages:


The problem is solvable and "The government has an undeniable role in preventing and reducing homelessness because the market economy on its own cannot ensure a reasonable distribution of income to enable all citizens to afford the basic necessities of life" (Mayor's Homeless Action Task Force, 1999, p. 20). But government cannot solve the problem on its own. Helping people move out of homelessness is a complex and difficult task that requires amelioration of the underlying causes of poverty, not just programs to address the symptoms. The best way to accomplish this task is by providing people with adequate income through sustainable gainful employment. However, many Canadian are unemployed although they want to work. No amount of retraining will get them back into the workforce and off the streets if available jobs do not exist. Therefore, the creation of sustainable, gainful, employment has to be a goal. In addition, there must be an increase in social assistance to adequate livable levels. It is necessary to establish individualized support and funding programs that cover both basic expenses and special needs for those with physical and mental health needs. Unfortunately, such attempts to end homelessness will be of little benefit if affordable housing does not exist. A national social housing program needs to be established to provide housing for those who cannot afford market rates. Most importantly homeless men must share the responsibility for, and be active partners in, all efforts involved in solving the problem of homelessness. Time must be taken to help the homeless organize and mobilize so that they can be the foundation of the process and the solution.


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Author Bio 

Ian 'Tay' Landry BSc BA BA(Hnrs) MA BSW MSW

Mr. Landry has been involved in community development for over 15 years. He is a sociologist and social worker, a skilled researcher, negotiator, mediator and instructor having worked in the areas of social service delivery, community-based agencies, mental health services, child protection, seniors services, policy analysis and education. His efforts have focused on resolving individual, family, group or community problems following a structural anti-oppressive framework of practice which maximizes consumer empowerment and environmental mastery.

Mr. Landry possesses a Master's Degree in Social Work (2001), a Bachelor Degree in Social Work (2000), a Master's Degree in Sociology (1998), a Bachelor of Arts Honors Degree in Sociology (1997), a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science (1996) and a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Sociology (1994). He also holds certification in such areas as counseling, suicide intervention, non-violent crisis intervention, sexuality counseling, drug counseling, and community development.

Mr. Landry's analysis comes from his experience as a single-father, a person with a disability, the parent of a child with Autism, a social assistance recipient, a mental health services consumer, and a person who has lived in 'low-income' housing as well as his academic, volunteer and employment experience.