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Bright Spot: The Thompson Model of Lived Experience Leadership

April 10, 2024 - 10:46 am / News

What if we put the people we are serving in charge of the very system that is meant to help them? 

That is the question at the heart of a revolutionary leadership and governance model that has been developed in the northern community of Thompson, Manitoba.  

The traditional approach to developing Coordinated Access Systems is to establish a Community Advisory Board (CAB). The CAB makes policy and strategic decisions that set up, oversee, and monitor the Coordinated Access System — but there’s no requirement to include the leadership of people with lived and living experience of homelessness. 

In some communities in more recent years, CABs have established advisory groups of People with Lived Experience (PWLE). In some communities they make suggestions or in others, they have decisions run past them for their advice. In almost all cases, these bodies don’t have any actual decision-making force — their advice is just that: advice.  

Unfortunately, this can quickly become a check box for ‘inclusion’ and become tokenism, even if PWLE are a component in a governance group. 

In Thompson, a small group of passionate individuals were asked to create a Coordinated Access System. Very early on they asked the question, “what if we put the people we are serving in charge?”  

This was scary. It hadn’t been done before.  

They had all kinds of questions, many based in stigma about people experiencing homelessness: What if they can’t handle it? What if mental health or substance use barriers mean that they destabilize and become erratic? What if they make decisions we don’t like? Are we even allowed to do this? 

But they saw the opportunity to pioneer a model that put those impacted by the CAB’s decisions in charge. The Lived Experience Circle (LEC) was created, and the Thompson Model was born. 

“One of the most important things about being part of the Lived-Experience Circle is coming to meetings and sharing what I hear from people on the street—too often projects are done without talking to people on the street,” said Jack Robinson, LEC member. 

So how does it work? 

The Thompson LEC share a meal together after a meeting, joined by CAEH staff members, Quinn Moerike and Jody Yurkowsky Pace.

With The Thompson Model, the LEC meets regularly to discuss any of the issues requiring attention.  

All interest holders within the community — including governments, the community entity, service providers, content experts, etc. — are invited to that meeting. The information required for a decision is presented, and everyone present can ask questions, gain additional information, provide context, and have a fulsome discussion of the issue at hand. But importantly, no decision is voted on here.  

Once this is done, everyone but the LEC is dismissed. The LEC then eats a meal together. Once the meal is completed and both mind and body have had a chance to digest, the serious discussion and decision-making begins. They vote on the pertinent items, and their decision is final. That decision is then communicated to all the organizations impacted.  

It really is that simple.  

They break bread together and make a decision, after having access to everyone who has pertinent information or expertise. Importantly, no one outside the LEC votes on or decides these issues. Everyone else exists to provide expertise and advice. It’s a complete reversal of the status quo and empowering for people experiencing homelessness. 

In addition, all members of the LEC are supported by a full-time support worker who acts as a liaison between them and the interested parties, coordinates their work, arranges for transportation, and is meant to remove any barriers to the LEC being able to effectively do their work that they can. The LEC are provided with laptops with software pre-loaded that allows them to access any of the files that they need, communicate with each other, and do any of the preparations that any board member would be required to do. Transportation to and from meetings is provided, as well as the meal that they share, and most critically – they are paid.  

Payment was one of the things that was controversial when The Thompson Model was in the early stages. It was pointed out that most board members are not paid. However, others differed, saying that while that is technically true, it is not absolutely true. On many other boards, most or all the people attending meetings and doing the work were doing that as an extension of their professional roles within the community, and so their salaries were effectively paying them to do that work.  

“When I come to LEC meetings, it always makes me want to do more to end homelessness. I look forward to these meetings and being part of finding solutions,” says Douglas Hart, LEC member. 

LEC members are also provided significant opportunities for training. They have been given access to OCAP Training, some training in computer skills, Coordinated Access training, and ongoing support in understanding funding applications, policy documents, and other issues they consider.  

Two things were spoken about very early on. The LEC members had to be fairly stable, and they had to reflect the demographics of people experiencing homelessness in their community.  

On the first point, it was felt strongly that, while they were open to people currently experiencing homelessness serving on the LEC, the complex and sometimes demanding work required members to not be constantly worried about where they were sleeping or showering that day, or where their next meal was coming from. It was felt that it was unlikely that someone currently in crisis — sleeping rough or in complete survival mode — could have the bandwidth to meaningfully contribute.  

On the second, because Thompson’s homeless population is at least ~90% Indigenous, this group had to look like the community to reflect what was happening in the community. Guided by Dr. Jessie Thistle’s foundational work on Indigenous Definitions of Homelessness, the LEC has reflected the demographics of their community ever since the beginning. 

“It is empowering being part of the Lived-Experience Circle because I know what it is like to be homeless. There is a solution to ending homelessness and it takes humility, caring, and respect for all people,” added Leo Moose, LEC member. 

How is it going? 

It has been an amazing success. Beyond all expectations.  

The LEC has reviewed, developed, changed, edited, and implemented an entire policy manual for Coordinated Access in their community. 

During a recent RFP, they reviewed the funding applications, made the funding decisions, and asked for changes to the applications, requesting that only the aspects that they agreed to were part of any ongoing funding decisions. 

They travelled to the 2023 National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Halifax where they presented on The Thompson Model. And they continue to do the work, undaunted by its complexity and importance.  

One of the concerns voiced at the beginning was that attendance at these meetings would be an issue. Some who had experience working with people with lived experience of homelessness who hold advisory positions mentioned that they had trouble getting them to attend the meetings.   

In the main, that has not been borne out.  

Attendance is better than most boards that the community interest holders have been involved with.  

The LEC is invested. This is their system, they are given the tools to participate that traditional board members would already have access to, such as computers, payment, food, and transportation, and they see that the decisions they make are not ignored but implemented. They joined to create change, and that is exactly what they are doing. 

“I’ve learned a lot by being here with this group and I would like to do more to help the people out there. It’s a great group and I enjoy meeting new people,” said Delores Cook, LEC member. 

So, what’s next?  

This work is truly revolutionary. The power dynamics have been upended and the members of the LEC are doing complex and impactful work. The Mayor, City Manager, and all of the stakeholders in the community have completely bought in and are committed to this process.  

The fears that this would end in disaster were, of course, unfounded.  

The LEC continues its work, and continues to lead the community. Now, any changes or adaptations of the initial idea are for the LEC to decide.  

And decide they will.  

Nothing about us, without us.

Written by Quinn Moerike, National Training Consultant at Training and Technical Assistance.