Practical Governance in Housing and Support Services

Practical Governance in Housing and Support Services

Lindsay and Leonard discussing issues through stories at the Indigenous laws workshop, January 2019

Lindsay and Leonard discussing issues through stories at the Indigenous laws workshop, January 2019

Are police community members?

For a number of years I was part of a grassroots advocacy group involving people experiencing homelessness and housed advocates. At one meeting a few years ago, we asked the Executive Director (ED) of a large downtown shelter why the police were so often present. The ED told us that police are welcome because all community members are welcome. The comments from the ED stuck with me because they ran against the views of many grassroots advocates and community members, including myself: the police are in a distinct position of power and thus in an unequal relationship with community members. Police officers enact repressive power—no matter how “good” an individual officer may be. Their power is inherent to being a state institution, not part of the community.

Last fall, a group member named Chrissy asked to include police in Home in the City, a research project that hosts a number of community conversations about downtown housing and support services in Victoria. The purpose of these conversations is to discuss governance and how respond to inequities in the ways people are positioned within the housing community. Through Home in the City, our group created a concise and tangible governance resource, The Victoria Declaration - A Statement on Governance in Housing and Support Services. Half of the participants have experience with homelessness and around half are Indigenous. I term the method arising from the work of co-creating a governance resource with a community “Practical Governance.”

It would have been easy to for me to reject the request to include police out of hand because of the distinct position of power police occupy. In this case, an outright rejection was not satisfactory to me as I was being asked to include police by an important leader within our process: Chrissy is a community member well aware of issues with police, an Indigenous woman critical of Canadian law and colonial dispossession, and a grassroots organizer often responding to very real issues of community safety without a lot of resources.

To treat the request seriously I asked a number of different questions that did not focus solely on systemic conditions or treat inclusive relationships as an unqualified good. Rather, I tried to balance a structural analysis and a complex understanding of interpersonal relationships when responding to the request.  

These interactions have clarified a key aspect of Practical Governance. When undertaking Practical Governance research, the researcher cannot be driven by purely structural critique, nor can they focus solely on trying to promote inclusive relationships separate from questions of power. Both have to be considered in the course of producing a governance resource. Of course, people should not abandon a structural analysis regarding the police, but working with a community to create tangible outcomes requires holding structures and personal relationships in tension with each other.

Why is Home in the City about governance?

Some of the most important governance decisions we make living in community concern the ways we respond to harms and conflicts, whether experiencing or witnessing them. We all make decisions about how to respond, even if that means deciding to ignore the situation or walk away.  

Calling Home in the City governance work means not only being concerned with how we take care of relationships, but also with the structural contexts that that affect our relationships and vice-versa. “Structures” here could include the way an organization is set up, or systems created by governments (e.g. social assistance, or a housing system that encourages private homeownership and housing as an investment instead of a social good). Structural contexts also mean patterns of behaviour in institutions and the actions of individuals that play out as racism, colonialism, ability, classism and other oppressive systems. These structures, of course, create huge power imbalances.  

The approach we have taken in Home in the City centres on inclusion, but not in the sense that everyone needs to be included at every point and in every decision, but that people should always be included in meaningful ways regarding the decisions that impact them. It also means paying attention to critical questions about how power imbalances might be at play; working across differences doesn’t mean pretending those differences don’t involve power.

Inclusion always needs unpacking. The ED’s comments reflect a way of thinking about inclusion through a difference-free lens and a commitment to building spaces that are broadly welcoming and based on an “equality-as-sameness” approach. When service providers or community members take a seemingly arms-wide-open approach to police this may also indicate the ways they rely on having regular contact and trusting relationships with police. It assumes that people accessing services will also benefit from building familiarity and relationships with police in an everyday and non-adversarial way. Whatever the intent, believing in equality does not mean everyone is the same, and where we see real power imbalances, people shouldn’t necessarily be treated the same.

Police are the powerful enforcement arm of the Canadian legal and political system. The power imbalance with community members is affected by other differences that produce inequality. Poverty creates distinct and sometimes monumental stresses for people living with disabilities trying to access the supports they need. Queer and trans youth are much more likely to experience homelessness, as are Indigenous peoples. For just one high-profile example, when serial killer Robert Pickton was targeting women on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, we know that police systematically ignored the crisis, stereotyping and stigmatizing the victims. These realities must factor into what it means to build inclusive spaces when community members face systemic inequity and exclusion in so many spaces.

Political theorist James Tully writes, “If we want equal relationships then we must treat each other equally in working on unequal relationships.” Seeing governance as made up of actions, we always have possibilities for acting within relations of governance, even in the most oppressive conditions, be it in our ways of thinking or in how we treat each other.

Thinking about governance this way is helpful because it treats each of us as citizens with agency, even if we acknowledge the ways our opportunities are limited by conditions that go beyond our individual choices. We are all part of governance in the decisions we make to respond to issues, through our relationships and in relation to structures. When we make decisions, we must think about both our personal relationships and about structural power.

Where the Home in the City project comes from / Where I’m coming from

The specific focus on relationships in Home in the City emerges from years of work and activism. I’ve seen the ways conflicts within and between groups can undermine our ability to respond to pressing community issues. Conflicts are sometimes interpersonal, but they also reflect our varied backgrounds and systemic inequities. In responding to these complex forms of inequity, service providers face real challenges in meaningfully involving those most affected by the issues.

Too often governance oscillates between unproductive attempts at horizontal decision-making through nebulous consultations and, on the other extreme, where staff and professionals serve as stand-ins for the common good and opaque top-down decision-making is justified as necessary for everyone’s safety or to get things done.

The UVic Indigenous Law Research Unit is effective in helping communities challenge power imbalances and build shared conversations around pressing issues. ILRU creates practical tools for communities in different areas of Indigenous legal traditions, including responding to harms and conflicts, such as in the Accessing Justice and Reconciliation project (AJR project). When I was working with ILRU on the AJR project, I started to learn about the centrality of maintaining and restoring relationships in Indigenous laws. Building on this work, I was part of a university and community collaboration built around the Cree legal principle wahkohtowin: the governance of relationships, grounded in human relatedness, and relations with non-human beings and the Earth. These principles and approaches have been part of Home in the City with the help of facilitators from ILRU at all of our meetings. Additionally, our facilitator Matthew Wildcat, has brought to this approach “relational governance,” which asks us to think about “how we locate responsibility within a relational web based on Indigenous law.” 

My understanding of relationality has been shaped and expanded in profound ways by learning in these Indigenous contexts. These projects—based in various places, including UVic and UAlberta but also in collaboration with communities—prioritize not just discussions of relationality, but actual practices, obligations, and principles that stem from the distinct but interrelated circles of kin and community outwards to other communities and beings. I’ve also learned lessons about related principles of non-interference, between individuals and between communities. For example, as a non-Indigenous person, some of this work has included space for me, but many more projects of Indigenous governance and (or as) relationality do not include me. As Emily Riddle writes, “governance is merely about how we relate to each other as collectivities,” which in Riddle’s case is explicitly and specifically directed towards Indigenous women and Queer Indigenous communities.

Where I come from is a part of who I am, contains resources for meaningful relationships, and also implicates me in structures of power, privilege, and colonialism. My parents imparted lessons through our involvement in Church communities and placed a great deal of importance on building community and relationships. They gave me a deep sense of responsibility to family and others in need. At the same time, I’m situated as a housed, white, cisgender woman with English, French, and Scottish settler heritage. A commitment to personal, collective, and ongoing processes of decolonization means foregrounding this position within my work and has pushed me to reflect on the traditions I was raised with in my own family. Without a doubt, there are complex tensions around acknowledging some of the good principles from my Christian upbringing while confronting those aspects I believe to be oppressive. Part of my engagement in relationality means not relying solely on the practices of Indigenous peoples to think about this vital work.

A Practical Governance Method

To help us make decisions related to our relationships in housing and support services we need a Practical Governance Method, which I’ve been developing in collaboration with Home in the City and adapting tools and methods from the UVic Indigenous Law Research Unit (ILRU) and from ICA Associates.  

Through Home in the City we are co-developing a process that involves a relatively large and diverse group of people in a consensus-building process. In January, we collectively organized all the contributions from the initial meeting in December, and after a preliminary community review in April we now have a public draft of our governance resource, The Victoria Declaration. In total around 70 people have been part of the process.

We believe our declaration expresses many valuable insights held by a broad informal consensus of people connected to housing and support services. We plan to use the declaration as a tool to raise these conversations wherever it makes sense.

Our work is based on the idea that governance is both formal and informal: it involves all of us, from the beginning, because we each govern ourselves and our relationships with one another. The formal or institutionalized aspects of the ways that organizations, governments, and society are set up are shaped by the ways that people act within them. We have to make choices about how we abide by or support systems and rules, or how we work to resist, leave, and transform the structures through which we are governed.

Pete, Susan, Nancy, Bruce and Kym at a Declaration workshop, January 2019

Pete, Susan, Nancy, Bruce and Kym at a Declaration workshop, January 2019

The draft of the Victoria Declaration asserts:  

The root of how we run things begins with each of us. We each choose the rules we

follow or contest in our relationships....

And furthermore:

…we are all responsible for community safety, and for building a range of community

responses to harms and conflicts. 

In situations involving harm and conflicts, governance may involve police, whether we want them there or not. But governance of these situations also involves all of us in the ways we reinforce, renegotiate, or transform how we respond to potentially harmful situations. 

Building the “range of community responses” and other difficult community-governance challenges requires critical conversations where the answers are not always presumed or easy. One starting point is building a Practical Governance Method that helps us centre relationships in our decisions without overlooking the factors that produce unequal relationships.  

Applying Practical Governance 

To see how Practical Governance applies, let’s go back to where we started: the question of including police in the Home in the City project.  

A community member asked me if she could invite a couple of bylaw officers to our first workshop, becase these particular officers had gained her trust over the last few years when she was an advocate in tent cities. In some ways, I wanted to say yes. After all, our focus is responding to harms and conflict. Even if we hope to start developing more community capacity for other responses, right now the police play a central (and legislated) role in responding to harms and conflicts in our community. I trusted her when she said that sometimes she needed to rely on these trusted relationships with police.

However, I knew there would be many others at the workshop who do not have the same relationships. Home in the City involves community members who are street-involved and likely to have had traumatizing encounters with police. The reality in our society is that some groups are more likely to be marginalized and criminalized. I had to balance my judgments about individuals and their relationships and experiences with my understanding of the structural role police play.

I consulted with a couple people who were helping me organize and have knowledge of recent debates around police presence at events including people experiencing homelessness. For the initial workshop, I decided that no, police would not be included in this community process. I explained that I was open to future engagement, but the group should meet first and decide its own next steps (without police present).

Before our Indigenous laws workshop in the new year, the same community member again proposed that these officers would probably be open to learning another perspective on law. Isn’t part of our work communicating that Indigenous people’s own laws may be a factor in some encounters with police? I seriously considered the request and put it to the group. The result was a lot of texts, emails, phone calls, and other conversations about the situation. I heard stories of recent conflicts with police and concerns about whether everyone could be fully prepared when our invites are sometimes shared by word of mouth. In almost every case the conversation came to boundaries around police involvement—not at our planning meetings, but with sharing certain outcomes when they become public or holding other meetings. I also said that if anyone would feel uncomfortable, we would not extend an invitation. Ultimately, we did not.

I made the decision not to invite police to the workshops, in line with my initial response, but my commitment to the relationships I had and was building meant these decisions had to made within a process. Working in community meant I couldn’t just dismiss the request out of hand without considering the position of the person making the request, consulting others, and being open to complexity in the outcome. A commitment to building shared conversations in community is practical, not in the sense of always being easy, but in the sense of enabling people to move forward on pressing issues.

The governance process we undertook is practical in that a relatively large group of individuals from diverse social locations and competing views co-created a resource that does not deny all of our differences and disagreements, but rather brings forward a set of shared principles and commitments on which we can move forward. Many of the ideas in it will not be new to people connected to downtown communities—this is a good thing, because that means it expresses shared understanding. At the same time, it also points to areas where we need more to build our ability to have meaningful conversations to do the difficult work of building governance that responds to harm and conflict.


Renée Beausoleil is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University of Alberta. Her research is focused on co-developing governance resources with individuals connected to urban housing and support services. Renée has worked with community organizations for over fifteen years and is an affiliate of the Indigenous Law Research Unit at the University of Victoria. 

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