People with Lived Experience Must Be Meaningful Partners in Ending Homelessness
In order to successfully implement Opening Doors, people with lived experience must have meaningful and purposeful opportunities to inform and shape all levels of planning and implementation. As communities are creating coordinated systems designed to meet the unique needs of each individual and family experiencing homelessness, we must ask ourselves: Is our response to homelessness accessible? Does it provide authentic opportunities for people with lived experience to inform and drive change?
Recently, we invited a group of national advocates to our offices to think about this further. Together with federal partners, we discussed tangible ways to be more inclusive of people with lived experience in our daily efforts to end homelessness, building on the efforts of programs, agencies, community systems, and national partners already taking place across the country.
Creating that inclusion enriches the systems we are building and drives our strategies. Many of our best innovations, such as Housing First, were born from the lessons of people who have experienced homelessness. And now, because of national, state, and local work to involve people with lived experience, we have the benefit of understanding how our response can best reflect the insight and expertise of these critical voices.
The first step is to ensure that there is a shared commitment and framework to include everyone — especially people with lived experience — in planning, implementation, and evaluation. To sustain this effort, communities should measure and report how effective they have been at including people with lived experience throughout their systems.
How people with lived experiences are included will look different depending on the scope and scale of what is underway, but there are core approaches that can make inclusion meaningful. This means staying away from conventional ideas like asking people to simply share their story — highlighting the most traumatic parts for a passive audience — and instead, pushing ourselves to find out how to generate meaningful input and facilitate active dialogue that focuses on recommendations, strategies, and solutions.
This requires us to explore every aspect of how we invite people to participate, as well as the experience they have once they join the effort. We need to consider how welcoming we truly are, how well we articulate what we plan to do, and what the results will be. Doing this will give people a clear sense of what they are committing to and a feeling that they are not simply a token, but have a real seat at the table.
Creating a welcoming setting should be an ever-evolving process, based on feedback. To help set the stage, make sure you are:
- Using people first and plain language
- Ensuring that people feel safe
- Proactively identifying and resolving any barriers to participation, like scheduling that conflicts with employment or access to transportation or child care
- Preparing for a variety of language and cultural backgrounds
- Valuing people and their perspectives regardless of what led to their experience of homelessness
- Taking time to ensure that everyone is up to speed before shifting gears or making decisions
- Compensating people for sharing their expertise, whenever possible
The Lived Experience Advisory Council in Canada developed seven principles for ensuring equitable participation by people with lived experiences that can further inform inclusion strategies. Developing effective partnerships takes time, and implementing engagement strategies requires thoughtful, intentional work so that the right opportunities are made available at the right time.
Ultimately, there are multiple ways to plug-in and engage, building on the strengths of people with lived experience in your community.
- People can engage in peer outreach and support, such as the Veterans partnering with Veterans to end homelessness in New Orleans or New York City.
- They can shape policy questions and inform program design like the youth who participate through the Mockingbird Society Speak Up Program and True Colors’ 40 of the Forty.
- Or they can form or join leadership boards such as Homeless Helping the Homeless in Charlotte, NC, Chicago’s Lived Experience Commission, or the National Health Care for the Homeless Council’s Consumer Advisory Boards.
- And when the community calls on experts to engage and inform partners, we can turn to the best experts of all, people experiencing homelessness, like at the Massachusetts Housing & Shelter Alliance Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau, or storytellers and advocates from the Corporation for Supportive Housing Speak Up program.
Achieving this aim requires sustained commitment and focus, but we must do it. Our response is strongest when our efforts are informed by the voices of people who have experienced homelessness and are accessible, meaningful, welcoming, and results-oriented.