Facilitating Community Dialogue to Find Solutions for Homelessness

February 19, 2020 11:10 AM
by Constance Farrell

Facilitating Community Dialogue to Find Solutions for Homelessness

Rebecca Cannara, Santa Monica resident and Executive Director with the Universal Human Rights Initiative (UHRI), has worked in social work and education for the past 20 years. She has served youth and families experiencing homelessness and last year she started an intergroup dialogue to bring people together in conversation about homelessness. The sessions are open to all and are hosted monthly through June. The next one is March 4 - see below. 

What is intergroup dialogue and what are you actively doing right now?

Intergroup dialogue is a community-building effort to bring people together across social and economic boundaries that might otherwise divide them, and engage participants in a series of dialogues around constructive communication, social identities, systems of power, difficult conversations and meaningful allyship and action planning. We employ a 4 stage model that stems from years of action and research at the University of Michigan and other universities. At UHRI, our aim is to bring dialogue off campuses and into a wide variety of community settings. Each dialogue is shaped to reflect the needs of the specific community we partner with.  We support participants as they engage in critical reflection about their shared and divergent experiences and practice dialogic skills that serve to co-create knowledge and understanding in an inclusive manner. Currently, we are engaged in dialogues on homelessness in Santa Monica that focus on information sharing and action planning at each meeting, dialogues as professional development in local schools and organizations, and we'll soon begin the 4th year of bilingual dialogues for parents at Edison Language Academy.  

What sparked your interest in bringing your experience to discussions around homelessness? 

My background since college has been working with youth and families experiencing homelessness, but I paused for a long time once I became a mom. Our organization focuses on spreading human rights information globally through the use of technology, but locally, we wanted to focus on housing as a human right. After talking with several service providers and witnessing exchanges in political settings and on NextDoor, we could see that we can offer dialogue to try to hold deeper, less divisive conversations around the subject and build new avenues for community engagement and action. We hope that those conversations will lead folks to want to take personal and meaningful actions in their own lives, and we're excited to learn what shape those actions take. 

Why is in-person dialogue important on issues like homelessness?

What I've witnessed online does not feel like dialogue. Sometimes there are hints of discussion, but mostly, it feels like debate, hostility, and sometimes compassion. Dialogue, at least as I see it, is about letting go of our differences and our opinions to spend more time listening to each other. We're not trying to debate about who is right and who is wrong. Dialogues instead look like a small or large group of people joining together, face-to-face to learn from each other, no matter what our background. Our dialogues aim to remove power dynamics as best we can and to bring stakeholders from all aspects of the issue to the table. They are voluntary, so the room on any given night may include folks who have never spoken with someone who is currently unhoused, folks who work in social service nonprofits, people in government positions, and our neighbors with current or lived experience of homelessness.  In January, we heard from Everyone In, St. Joseph Center, The People Concern and Casa de la Familia about their programs and needs and then held open dialogue around what we could do about what we learned. One of our participants who is currently unhoused shared afterward how he had forgotten that folks could treat him with human grace and dignity. He is currently one of our most active participants. 

What’s the most promising thing you’ve learned from the first sessions?

I've been moved by the barriers that these dialogues have broken, even if for just an evening. These sessions are very open-ended, and the last one shapes the next one, so I'm learning what's working and what could be improved. As a facilitator, I'm learning to trust the open-ended process, even when I, of course, want to see solutions emerge rapidly. Our very first meeting highlighted that each participant had a personal connection to homelessness one way or another. For example, in my own family, my grandfather and father-in-law had both lost homes, one as a child, one as an adult. One of our participants shared with me just how moved she was to really connect with someone who is currently unhoused, something that was not part of her everyday life, and how that has shifted her perspective. In dialogue, often transformative moments like that influence a person's thoughts and actions for a long time afterward. So I find promise in seeing community members come together and let go of assumptions and judgments in order to build connections with folks they would otherwise not have spoken to. And even more promising is to see the actions that emerge from that engagement.  Already, I've heard that former participants signed up for the homeless count, are advocating at public meetings, and are providing donations of clothing, blankets and food at the meetings or at other times and locations. We just heard from a group of high school students who want to donate feminine hygiene products at our next meeting. We've also hosted a film screening from a participant who has experienced homelessness in the past. She has since received an award for her film. And finally, we are looking into forming a peer support group that can be peer-led and sustained over a longer period of time. 

How can residents get involved?

We are so grateful that Calvary Baptist Church and Reverend Mack Mossett have made it possible to hold these dialogues at their church. People can encourage their religious groups or other affiliations to take an active role in providing solutions and supports for folks in need. Residents can always find ways to volunteer for the many organizations working to support folks at risk of losing or who have lost housing (the Santa Monica link shows just a few). The Giving Spirit also has ways to get involved and trained on how to respectfully approach folks in the street. We certainly hope that people join our dialogues on the first Wednesday of the month through June (flyer attached) in order to get more informed and ask whatever questions they need. We're all learning together. The next dialogue is on 3/4/20. Most of all, I hope that residents will think personally about the social isolation that comes from each time we walk by someone who is visibly living in the streets and say nothing or when we vote against providing affordable or bridge housing in our neighborhoods, or when those of us lucky to own raise our rental prices higher than necessary, making it that more difficult for low income and middle-class folks to stay in Santa Monica. I strongly believe that these economic, psychological and physical distances we form harm the health and well-being of our community and limit the possibility for a truly diverse and inclusive future in Santa Monica. 

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