Colin Housing Providers Forum

I’ve been meaning to write about an event I attended a couple of weeks ago, or half attended, because my phone (aka my alarm clock) died so I overslept and missed a sizable chunk of it. The event was the Colin Housing Providers Forum Information Sharing Protocol Conference (try saying that ten times fast), organized by the Colin Neighbourhood Partnership (http://www.newcolin.com/)

In case you missed a previous description of Colin, it is a region on the very edge of West Belfast. The area used to be farmland, but it was developed in the later decades of the twentieth century to house Catholics.  Adequate infrastructure did not accompany the development of this residential area. Colin has typically been a disadvantaged community with high unemployment and an unsafe reputation, many people still avoid going into the Colin area. The Colin Neighbourhood Partnership brings community members, local representatives, organizations and government agencies together to improve the quality of life in Colin by addressing the specific needs of the community.

 “Colin will be an area with a vibrant centre, where people are happy to live, work, play and study and proud to say they are from. It will be a community empowered to participate and make a difference, where local achievements are celebrated and visitors are welcomed.”

–Colin Neighbourhood Partnership Mission Statement

Housing providers, police, community organizations including CRJI, and other agencies operating in and on behalf of the community in the Colin area realized that they were unable to effectively work together address issues like anti-social behavior because of legal restrictions on what they could share with each other about individuals involved. This fragmented communication was identified as detrimental to the community. With a major effort from these parties, an Information Sharing Protocol was formalized in 2010 which allows these agencies to come together in the Colin Housing Providers Forum and legally disclose certain personal data relevant to cases.

Often, the police get one side, and the housing providers another, and community groups yet another perspective and even for a group like CRJI to try and piece together a full account they must run back and forth between various parties. The protocol enables more efficient, representative, effective and  streamlined responses to community needs. With increased transparency between agencies, and the chance to get everyone around the same table, each group gets the same, fuller picture of a situation of individual. When all can be in the same conversation, they can hold each other accountable and must share responsibility for addressing issues.

When it comes down to it, all of these groups are in place to allow people to lead safe and fulfilling lives in a stable and healthy community. A model like the one in Colin is really good for its community, and that has to be the most important thing. The Neighbourhood Partnership and the Information Sharing Protocol are not one size fits all solutions. It is clear, however, that such models of open communication and shared responsibility allow different entities to perform their respective roles more effectively.  Beyond just the sharing of information, it seems like the Housing Providers Forum is really valuable for building trust and understanding between agencies. Agencies can recognize ways they can work together, and identify common goals. If two groups operate independently toward the same goal and each disapproves of the other’s approach, the effort as a whole will always be discordant. But if these groups acknowledge and communicate with each other, there is at least the opportunity for harmony.

As I see it, working within existing structures and with established institutions is crucial to widespread change. Even facing the messy, stubborn political gridlock impeding criminal justice system reform in the US, I am mildly optimistic. Personally, I believe that just about the whole system should be thrown out and reconstructed with a restorative vision, but I don’t see such an overhaul happening in my lifetime. Change will be slow, but even the littlest steps forward as policy can have impacting reverberations down the line. I think it will be very important to look beyond many of the wrongs and mistakes of organizations and agencies to identify the worth and potential good of each such body. Cooperation and coordination is vital. Important recurring notions in my study of CRJI’s development and success include exercising respect to all parties, practicing professionalism, and building personal relationships.

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