The Social Development Centre Waterloo Region (SDCWR) has played a pivotal role in assisting those who are experiencing evictions from their living situation, advocating for unhoused people and uplifting grassroots movements.  

I met with David Alton (they/them), facilitator of the Lived Expertise Working Group (LEWG), and discussed the purpose, plans and urgency for the LEWG in the Region.   

The LEWG began in May 2022 and includes 12 individuals who have both first-hand experience with housing marginalization and advocating for those who face housing marginalization in Kitchener.  

They meet with city staff twice a month and provide first-hand input and engagement about housing and homelessness strategies.   

  “[LEWG is a] model of lived expertise consulting that is trying to create long-term engagement and relationship building between housing advocates, homelessness advocates and the city,” Alton said.  

“Lived expertise differs from lived experience based on the fact that [people with] lived expertise have networks and relationship of trust, have seen different outcomes of policies and provide a perspective that city staff and city councilors simply do not have access to,” they said.  

This team is based on three pillars: lived experience, advocacy experience and working within the community.   

“The traditional institutions involved in social work are used to providing marginalized people resources but don’t necessarily advocate for them,” Alton said.   

While traditional institutions provide some help, they can still fall short of providing for other needs of marginalized populations.  

“Traditional institutions can provide resources for the marginalized, but don’t tend to advocate for the marginalized,” Alton said. 

Other initiatives can fulfill that gap. 

“Rather with the LEWG challenges institutions and systems so that marginalized voices can be built into what they are doing and are at the table,” they said.  

The LEWG came to fruition through collaboration between the city, the SDCWR and grassroots advocacy groups in our community.  

It is an example of a refined and redefined approach to housing. In the last six months, the LEWG has made major progress in working with the city, but it hasn’t been easy.   

Alton said that the city is often overwhelmed and under-resourced. They said the LEWG, the city’s housing staff and Kitchener Bylaw enforcement have been busy with the encampments, which unfortunately has limited the focus on the Housing for All strategy.   

Luckily, this has led to a better understanding of how to navigate encampments and support unhoused populations without running into political stalemates.  

The LEWG has subsequently taken the lead in providing consultation for effective approaches to housing strategies and has major plans in the new year which are deeply involved with academia.   

The LEWG is now aiming at the world of academia. Alton explained that in just six short months, the team has already created a panel at Wilfrid Laurier University’s (WLU) Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (LISPOP) conference, spoken at the rally against encampment eviction and convened with city councillors and researchers alike.   

Alton said the first few months were exhausting and a little overwhelming, but the group quickly found their pace.  

LEWG is working on three academic research projects in the new year, one with the University of Waterloo (UW), one with WLU and one with the City of Kitchener Bylaw.   

“There is such a need for this knowledge,” Alton said.   

By collaborating with UW, the LEWG is creating an actionable report on homelessness in the region which can be used as a model for solutions.  

Another report with WLU is expected to be released in spring 2023 and will have members of the LEWG lead the research.  

“Having LEWG consultants lead the study flips the power dynamics, because often research has defined questions and is extracting knowledge and information from people experiencing marginalization. In this situation, the [ones with] lived expertise are the ones shaping the research, while the students are supplying their skills and labor in service of the LEWG,” Alton said.  

Alton said the project will look at gentrification, with attention to municipal approaches towards addressing gentrification. It will involve the voices of those affected by gentrification with hopes of showcasing what is needed versus what is being done.   

The report LEWG is working on with Kitchener Bylaw enforcement  looks into the Bylaw’s approach to encampments with hopes of improving future training. They hope this training will adhere to recommendations made by the LEWG, such as a human rights approach to housing.   

“Our model is hopefully continued and expanded into the other aspects of engagement that the municipalities do and obviously, to house people while enforcing a human rights approach to housing,” Alton said.   

The LEWG is an example of cooperation between members of the community and the city. This group provides a nuanced look at how Canadian cities can find a creative, effective and real approach to housing and homelessness.   

There is a need for grassroots organizations like the LEWG to shape the future of housing in Canada, and this work can hopefully find ground in other cities across the province and country.   

The LEWG is a prototype, but it is a clear example of how advocacy, experience and participation can result in a positive change for those who are all too often forgotten or silenced.   

The effects of gentrification can be best voiced by those who are affected by it, and it isn’t only about providing short term resources but rather advocating and implementing real changes.  

The disparities that exist between the marginalized and the city staff can only be solved if institutions are willing to listen and pull up a chair for those who need to be heard.