When You Come to a Fork in the Road by Al Etmanski

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Our members provide safe, secure and affordable homes. But are the residents flourishing? Could more be done to ensure they are meaningfully engaged? At the 2017 Housing Central Conference the community organizer and social advocate Al Etmanski builds on sessions in our Inclusive Housing pathway as he discusses the power of being open to new paths and new approaches to the work of non-profit housing, and establishing an inclusive environment that truly embraces and supports all residents. Below is a sneak peek of what he’ll be sharing at Housing Central.

A few years ago I received a lesson in boldness while attending a north-south retreat on homelessness in Bellagio, Italy sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. The attendees from Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, India, the UK and North America had impressive credentials. Most had a minimum of three decades of experience developing social housing. They had hundreds of thousands of units under their collective belts. Yet they had come to the conclusion that building housing was not sufficient to eliminate homelessness. They had noticed that residents were not flourishing, that many of them felt useless and this had serious implications for the stability of their housing stock. They knew there was more they could do.

They had invited me to talk about belonging and a good life. My colleagues and I had spent decades advocating in the disability world for more program dollars. Despite good intentions and talented staff, too many people with disabilities still experienced lives without friendship and meaningful engagement. The Bellagio gathering helped me to see that challenges like homelessness, exclusion, poverty, loneliness, addiction and abuse are interconnected. And that a broader movement was required to address their material and spiritual dimensions.

I learned four lessons in boldness from the attendees at the Bellagio gathering:

One, when you come to the proverbial fork in the road take them both. The one you are familiar with and the one you are less familiar with.

Two, there are times when you have to leap over incremental approaches into something breathtakingly different.

Three, it’s important to wholeheartedly embrace the material and spiritual dimensions of your work.

Four, your diverse mandates and specialties have more in common than you realize.

The members of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association have just emerged from decades of holding things together in the face of political neglect. Your accomplishments, despite limited resources, were essential. And impressive.

Now the times are changing. They are calling you to be bolder than you’ve ever been. Your challenge as advocates for democracy, justice and human rights lies in restoring a sense of inclusion, dignity and self-respect to people who are considered “useless” today.

The concluding statement of the Bellagio gathering was: “Bold action is needed to refocus policy to ensure that marginalized and vulnerable people can have a purpose in life, and a sense of belonging, as well as a home.”

I am confident that the members of the BCNPHA are in the best position of any group I know to take on that challenge.

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