Why Voice Matters In The Efforts To End Homelessness

Photo of Carline Charmelus​By: Carline Charmelus, Policy Analyst, Partnership for Strong Communities

Everyone has a unique experience and story, and how they relay their stories elicits different emotions from listeners. This is particularly true in the efforts to end homelessness. We know that every individual who enters the homelessness system has a different need, and the intervention that may be appropriate to serve one person may not be suitable for another.  As advocates, we often utilize data to show trends and signs of progress in how homelessness is either increasing or decreasing over time. But we also understand the value of incorporating the voices of individuals who have experienced homelessness, and we strive to best utilize that knowledge to help shape policies and systems change.

At the 2017 National Alliance to End Homelessness Conference on Youth and Family Homelessness, the echo of “nothing for me without me” resonated throughout the conference. It had me thinking about how the Reaching Home Campaign is working to engage and incorporate the voices of formerly or currently homeless people in the decision-making process.

Over the past couple of years, we have implemented many strategies to ensure that the voices of those who enter the homelessness system can play an active role in the efforts to prevent and end homelessness. Some of the endeavors that we and our partners have implemented through the Reaching Home Campaign include:

  • Support for the work of the Youth Action Hub comprised of a team of youth researchers who have experienced housing instability and homelessness. Members conduct participatory action research on youth homelessness in Connecticut, and report their findings to the workgroups and Steering Committee for the Campaign. 
  • Participation in member/client-based organizations, such as the Keep the Promise Coalition, to learn about the services and program needs of people who are in recovery programs. 
  • Client engagement during legislative advocacy efforts, empowering them to advocate directly for policy priorities and programs that would help to enrich their lives. 
  • Creation of a short-term consumer advisory task force to ensure that clients are engaged on an ongoing basis in the Campaign’s decision-making process. 
  • Hosting participatory focus groups with both providers and clients involved in the statewide Hospital Initiative, which works to expand the use of Community Care Teams (CCTs) to respond to the needs of individuals who make frequent use of hospital Emergency Departments, who are experiencing homelessness or who otherwise demonstrate complex needs for health care and housing support. The focus groups were designed to learn about barriers, best practices and sustainability for the Initiative.
  • Incorporating the lessons learned through the Home Connecticut Campaign from town selectmen, mayors, developers, clients and town residents who are concerned about affordable housing in their town.

Some of these strategies were successful in engaging clients. However, it has been a challenge asking people to participate in a system that has historically not taken their views into consideration, or may have misused the stories they have shared. Also, some of these individuals face multiple systemic barriers, such as lack of childcare and transportation that hinders them from participating in meetings. Recently, youth and young adult engagement has become an integral part of the work of the campaign for ending youth homelessness. However, we need to continue to be more creative and innovative on how we engage the adult population. Their needs and responsibilities differ from a youth or a young adult.

How Can We Ensure That People Who Have Lived Experienced With Homelessness, Both Youth And Adult, Are Engaged And Are Part Of The Decision-Making Process?

We and our partners have implemented a range of possible solutions, but we need to keep trying to find better ways to encourage voice and active participation from the people most affected by the policies and actions we are promoting. There may be different models and opportunities being explored around the state and elsewhere that we could replicate to engage formerly homeless individuals, and we would love to hear more from our readers and partners.

Without the voices of the people who are impacted by the system, we will have a difficult time understanding why different interventions, policies, and programs are successful or fail. By incorporating the voices of those with lived experience, we will start to shift the story from “they are no longer experiencing homelessness” to more than 10,000  people saying, “I am no longer experiencing homelessness because we have worked together to end homelessness and we will continue to work to maintain and prevent future homelessness, together.” 

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