Advocacy with purpose: ‘speaking up’ at the House of Friendship

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As I talked about in a previous post, at House of Friendship we recently developed a new strategic plan, including a new mission, vision, and values. Of course, any strategic plan is useless if it gathers dust on someone’s shelf, never being read and updated. With that in mind, the next few posts I write will be looking at how our programs are living out and acting upon the new plan, or, in other words, how the plan is shaping House of Friendship programs.

Today I want to focus on a part of our new mission statement, which reads, “House of Friendship strengthens people and communities by being there when needed, speaking up and working together.” In particular, I want to look at how House of Friendship programs are ‘speaking up’ for, or with, program participants. To me, speaking up to affect social change is the definition of advocacy. Of course, this is broad; advocacy can be cultural (changing people’s minds or perceptions of a certain group or issue), or legislative (changing actual governmental policy).

Michael Hackbush, our chaplaincy director, said that House of Friendship engages in what he calls ‘advocacy with purpose.’ While the term can have many meanings to many people, advocacy with purpose means being intentional about our advocacy and seeing more of what we do as advocacy.

Michael characterized House of Friendship advocacy along a continuum. On one side, there is interpersonal advocacy. This is where staff and volunteers listen to individual stories of our program participants and share these stories. On the other side of the continuum, there is systemic advocacy, or advocating to political representatives at the municipal, regional, provincial, and federal level. Much of the time, the interpersonal stories we hear are used to demonstrate at the governmental level that change is needed, whether that means creating a poverty reduction (or elimination) strategy, or increasing income and housing security.

Ron Fleming, the Residential Services Program Director, said that the most advocacy in residential services happens at an individual level, advocating for individuals or helping them advocate for themselves. Advocacy is usually around the issues of accessing income supports, such as Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program, and health supports. As with any initiative there are successes and challenges associated with advocating.

The most frequent challenges around advocacy for individuals relate to system flexibility and access to services; sometimes it’s hard to find a way to support someone who struggles to act in ways that match what Ron calls “standard required behaviour.” For example, if someone has a history of negative experiences with health care professionals, they may fear medical offices and need extra support in attending a medical appointment. Sometimes staff will go with a person to an appointment with a doctor, landlord or the bank to support him/her in articulating what they want to say so that the service system representative can understand.

People living on the brink of homelessness may also have difficulty getting the documentation needed to be eligible for government services, such as Ontario Works. In such situations, staff will help people track down Record of Employment documents and bank statements so they can receive government assistance. Things that many people can do independently and with ease, such as making a doctor’s appointment or sending off a resume, may be difficult for someone experiencing homelessness for a number of reasons, including whether they are living with mental illness, social stigma surrounding their appearance, and a lack of resources like a phone, computer, or fixed address. Staff at House of Friendship can support people in overcoming some of these barriers to meeting their basic needs. In this way, residential services helps people navigate systems that can be complex and unresponsive to an individual’s needs.

When advocating for change at the systemic level—or with various levels of government—we often work with other groups seeking the same change as we are. For example, our residential programs work closely with the Housing and Homelessness Umbrella Group and Supports to End Persistent Homelessness (STEP Home). Michael Hackbush, our chaplaincy director, works closely with a number of regional initiatives, including Poverty Free Waterloo Region. There are many other organizations working towards the same vision we are of a healthy community, and when we work together our voices are loudest. Indeed, working with these other organizations has led to things like a Waterloo Region Homelessness to Housing Stability Strategy, a regional government initiative to increase housing security in our cities.

Of course, we also have this blog, which we see as part of an advocacy effort. We try to use this blog to tell stories of people accessing our services, and to draw attention to how poverty, addiction, and food insecurity can impact a person’s daily life and health. Our goal with the blog is to educate people about the impact of poverty in our region, and hopefully to change some attitudes towards these issues.

Right now, many people in Waterloo Region are dealing with poverty, addition, finding their next meal, or finding a place to live. At House of Friendship we try to relieve their immediate need—here we give them their next few meals—but we also see it as our job to work towards creating better systems. In an ideal world, their need wouldn’t exist in the first place. At House of Friendship, we envision ‘a healthy community where all can belong and thrive.’ In this vision of an ideal community, we don’t exist because we’re no longer needed. Advocating for better systems and a more equitable society is one way we are trying to make our existence obsolete. While we probably won’t achieve our vision tomorrow, if our advocacy efforts make life a little easier for those we walk alongside, it would be a small success for us today, and the start of a slow journey to a more just community.

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2 Responses to “Advocacy with purpose: ‘speaking up’ at the House of Friendship”

  1. Advocacy and family services programs at House of Friendship « Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog Says:

    […] In my last blog about advocacy at the house of friendship, I talked about advocacy in our residential programs and with our chaplaincy director, Michael Hackbusch. Today I want to talk about advocacy at the community level, with our family programs. […]

  2. Why does Waterloo Region need a food charter? « Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog Says:

    […] they made when they endorsed the charter. In other words, the charter can be an important advocacy tool for local governments, non-profits, and food […]

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