StreetLevel 2006: Changing the Course of Homelessness in Canada

From 29 March to 1 April 2006 nearly 350 individuals, representing some seventy organizations from across Canada gathered at the Westin Hotel in downtown Ottawa, Canada, to participate in StreetLevel 2006, a conference for people who are passionately engaged in finding solutions to poverty and homelessness

Participants represented ministries and agencies of all sizes from around the nation. Frontline workers, agency leaders, board members and church representatives, who daily serve God’s people on the streets, gathered to resource, network, challenge one another and seek inspiration. The gathering also included both those who serve in public life and those who serve in the dark and lonely streets of Canada. Some were seasoned in street ministry; others came seeking to learn how best to come alongside, befriend and minister to the homeless and street-involved members of their communities.

The conference was presented by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s, a group which includes fourteen significant Christian organizations committed to working National Roundtable on Poverty and Homelessness among poor and/or homeless youth and adults.

History of StreetLevel
This was the third StreetLevel conference. StreetLevel was initially born of a vision to bring together street workers from across Canada. The mandate of StreetLevel in its early days was to “affirm the dignity and significance of those serving Christ among his people on the streets of Canada. The conference will bring together street workers for theological reflection, resource sharing and mutual encouragement.”

The first conference, which held the theme “You Are Not Alone,” was held in April 1994 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Rick Tobias, president and CEO of Yonge Street Mission served as chair. This first conference drew 250 delegates together, and was noted by Christian Week, a bi-weekly Christian national newspaper, as one of the most significant national Christian events in 1994. It featured many well-known speakers on street ministry and poverty issues, as well as renowned author and spiritual leader Father Henri Nouwen as the conference devotional speaker.

In October 1996 a second conference was held in Calgary, Alberta. For this event, Pat Nixon, executive director of the Mustard Seed Street Ministry served as chair. The theme of this conference was “Reclaiming the Future” and included the importance of giving hope and a future to those who call the streets of Canada their home.

Both conferences achieved their goal of nurturing and caring for the spiritual and emotional needs of frontline staff and volunteers. Both had a profound and lasting impact on the lives of those who were present.

A New Beginning
The most recent StreetLevel gathering was chaired by Tim Huff, director of Light Patrol and Homelessness Initiatives for Youth Unlimited (Toronto Youth For Christ). As with the first two conferences, delegates came to network with their peers, learn from one another and resource and be resourced.

The mandate of the National Roundtable on Poverty and Homelessness is “United Voice, Dynamic Response,” which was echoed clearly in the theme of the conference, “Truthtellers and Peacemakers.”

By being truthtellers, we mean that it is critical we:

  • Understand the issues in all their complexity
  • Bring clarity to those issues in communicating them to others
  • Speak with boldness the truth about poverty, homelessness and our responsibility to act justly in these matters

By being peacemakers, we mean that it is critical we:

  • Affirm the dignity of all participants in such conversations and activities
  • Speak and act with humility as we advocate for the powerless in the corridors of power
  • Behave generously as we seek to build bridges between people or groups with opposing views

Conference organizers and delegates stood together to say to God, to those we work among, to government and to each other that we were rededicating our efforts to ensure that the status quo regarding homelessness in Canada can no longer continue. In his welcome speech, David Adcock, chair of the Roundtable, called those gathered to be of one mind: “We as followers of Christ commit ourselves to learn and advocate for and with our friends who are homeless to ensure that all have a place, all have standing and all have a voice.”

Conference Highlights
On the opening day of the conference several members of the Roundtable, including Huff; Greg Paul, chair of the Advocacy Working Group of the Roundtable and executive director of Sanctuary; and Bruce Clemenger, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, held a press conference on Parliament Hill to present the “Ottawa Manifesto,” a statement developed by the Roundtable. This statement is a call and commitment to a shared vision of Canada in which no person is denied the reality of “home.”

The Manifesto was formally presented at the opening banquet of the conference. Nineteen members of Parliament accepted the invitation to attend the opening night, and official greetings were given by representatives from all four federal parties. The evening highlighted the national issue of homelessness that has reached crisis proportions. Guests were offered an introduction to the important work already being done by church and ministry organizations. The night served as a launch pad for a constructive, ongoing dialogue between “street level” ministries and government in seeking solutions.

The Manifesto, endorsed by conference delegates, was printed in the Ottawa Citizen newspaper on Monday, 3 April—the day the 39th Parliament convened in Ottawa. It was subsequently made available online at Since posted, a steady stream of individuals from across the country have been adding their voices to those of the Roundtable and delegates of Street Level 2006 in calling the nation to place a high priority on addressing issues of poverty and homelessness.

Tobias gave the opening plenary address entitled “Worthy of Respect: The Mark of Great Nations and Their Leaders.” He challenged listeners to be bold in their truthtelling, and not to be passive in their peacemaking. Two-time Juno award winning singer/songwriter Steve Bell led in times of inspiration and celebration throughout the conference.

Sister Sue Mosteller, international coordinator of L’Arche, spoke on intimacy with Jesus during our morning devotional times. Participating alongside Sister Sue was Bill Van Buren, a member of the L’Arche Daybreak community.

There were twenty-three workshops on a range of street-relevant and leadership issues. Experts and seasoned frontline workers led workshops covering topics such as public policy, vision casting and accountability and hardcore street issues.

During one of the final sessions, one frontline worker handed a note to the conference chair which read, “We are not going home from this conference the way we came. We have been uplifted, we have been changed.”

Looking Ahead
StreetLevel 2006, an event more than two years in the making, created a national turning point. It is leading us to understand and act in new ways in changing the course Canada takes regarding homelessness. This in turn will be a model for other nations as they deal with similar issues. 

The week following the conference was filled with queries from media, interested individuals and other faith-based groups actively involved in addressing issues of poverty and homelessness in Canada. The momentum is growing and the potential is immeasurable. StreetLevel 2006 secured the foundations of an ongoing coalition of like-minded ministries and agencies from across Canada committed to working together to raise the level of life—physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually—for those in our communities who are poor or homeless.

The National Roundtable on Poverty and Homelessness will be meeting in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the first week of June to discuss further plans and strategies which include the timing, structure and growth for the next national StreetLevel conference.

Timothy Huff is chair of Street Level 2006.

Julia Goodhew is research and project coordinator for the National Roundtable on Poverty and Homelessness.