“…a bright light in the gloom, a way out of hopelessness…we fight so that the dispossessed and neglected minority can havea a decent place to live and a decent life.” (Peter, Member)
The Dream Team is a group of consumer survivors who have developed a way to use their personal stories and experiences to successfully influence housing policy and practice for persons with mental illness and addictions. The organization is built on a foundation of consumer-driven activism and a deep personal commitment to the value of supportive housing. They are aided in their work through the support of volunteers and in partnerships with policy makers, researchers, and service providers. Drawing on these organizational pillars they have developed a model that builds community, inspires others living with mental illness, brings systemic injustice and incompetence to light, and offers real solutions.
“What the Dream has very successfully done is they have built a strong cadre of supporters, whether its advisors or coordinators or sponsors… they continually work to maintain those relationships.” (Paul Dowling, Advisor to the Dream Team)
“We need to tell our stories because that is how we can change people’s ideas and break down stigma and discrimination.” (Linda Chamberlain, Founding Member)
The Dream Team grew out of concern over inadequate housing for persons with mental illness in Toronto. It began in 1999 when one of its founding members, Linda Chamberlain, became frustrated at a meeting of housing service providers. She observed that while she sat on this board as a consumer there was no room for her to speak about her experience with supportive housing. After making this point clear she was invited to tell her story about how supportive housing changed her life. Those at the meeting were struck by the power of her story and realized the importance of consumers advocating in their own voice.
“Most of us had really low self-esteem when we started out because you know people were always pushing us around and telling us what to do and always putting us down because they thought we were lazy or we were no good, but you know, Dream Team members support each other and they encourage us to do more things and that gives us more confidence.” (Phillip, Member)
The Dream Team grew from that initial recognition of the power of personal stories to make tangible the importance of housing in the lives of people with mental illness and addictions. It was, however, through a strong entrepreneurial approach that it was to become a highly respected, influential, and funded organization. The Dream Team has grown into an organization of over 20 members that has spoken to countless numbers of students at all levels, has the ability to draw thousands to their events, and that has the ear of the executives of health service organizations and senior policy makers at city and provincial levels.
“They are pretty good gatekeepers too. Not just anybody can get on the Dream Team, which I think is important because part of their strength is in making sure people get it [purpose and values]. And I think they make sure that people get it before they get on the team and they also have a strong culture, of who they are and how they work, and so when somebody does come on they learn the culture.” (Paul Dowling, Advisor)
Dream Team members use several strategies to which they attribute their success – success in a context which does not readily support attention to the opinions and stories of persons marginalized and stigmatized due to mental illness and addictions. The strategies that have facilitated their success have consisted of cultivating passion among members for their work and building a supportive community among members. They also have a strong outward focus, being extremely active in cultivating a network of influential partners and having a highly visible presence in the city. Dream Team partners include members of provincial and federal parliament, senior hospital executives, and senior executives of community organizations. Throughout this effort, they have very actively and conscientiously maintained a clear vision and identity and continuously strive to develop activities and stories that are both current and highly effective.
Examples of Dream Team Projects
1) The Dream Team outreach and public education program reaches diverse audiences through the year. An average of 3000 people, including community members, students, politicians and policy makers listen to Dream Team presentations annually.
2) Income supports and disability research: The Dream Team is partnering with CAMH and Houselink to develop a policy document that will make recommendations to the upcoming Social Assistance Review.
3) We Are Neighbours: In 2008 the Dream Team worked with Alice de Wolff and other researchers to develop a research project on the impact supportive housing has on surrounding neighbourhoods.
4) Discriminatory by-law challenge: With support from the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, the Dream Team along with other organizations has filed a human rights complaint against the zoning by-laws of 4 Ontario municipalities (Sarnia, Smith Falls, Kitchener, and Toronto). This challenge also serves as a platform for public education and has inspired a follow-up project to collect stories in these communities.
5) 10 Year Mental Health and Addictions Strategy: Dream Team members have been providing input into a strategy being developed by the Ontario Ministry of Health
6) Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC): The Dream Team is one of 28 organizations across the country working with the MHCC in developing a national anti-stigma study. Dream Team members are also serving on a consumer caucus advising MHCC on a large-scale research project on the effectiveness of housing first initiatives.