Networking awareness based on homelessness experience

The San Diego Homeless-Experienced Advocacy and Leadership Network, which originally launched in April 2019 and trained participants in northern and central San Diego County to advocate for public policy, is creating a new group in East County with plans for another to follow in South Bay.

At its core, the program is designed for homeless or formerly homeless residents to contribute their perspective to policy makers who, ideally, use the feedback to develop smarter programs that could lead to better outcomes.
San Diego Housing Federation resident and community organizer Mehrsa Imani, who oversees the program, said a historic approach to homelessness outreach has typically included policy experts, but “we need to make our voices heard of those who have had experiences” to really make an impact on homelessness.

“HEAL takes the approach of trying to understand the agencies and people who make decisions related to homelessness. When the program was established, we and the participants asked where the conversations were taking place and asked how people with lived experiences could have a voice. One way to break down the barriers is to work on some of the gaps, the issues, the loops where people get caught up in the system. We work with people to change and improve policies so that pathways out of homelessness become clearer,” said Imani.

Each cohort undergoes a five-week training program during which participants explain how homelessness-related priorities can be linked to conversations with elected officials and their specific platforms.

“One strategy has been to meet with elected officials who have been more aligned with our views and broadened over time. However, we also wonder how we can talk to other elected officials, even if housing and homelessness are not their top priority. At the end of April, we had a legislative forum inviting city and county elected officials. HEAL created a presentation in which the speakers reviewed their own experiences, talked about some myths to demystify and shared solutions,” Imani said.

She also said it’s important to note that HEAL members repeatedly say they “want to be involved in recommending solutions that are proposed and then implemented” rather than just giving feedback on existing plans. , essentially helping to develop policies.

In East County, HEAL partnered with Community Action Service Advocacy for training. CASA Executive Director Dana Stevens said CASA Associate Director Bonnie Baranoff will coordinate the first East County Cohort alongside Imani and “hopefully it will help people build self-confidence.” to find their voice and share their journey” to change perception and ultimately reduce homelessness.

“I think the HEAL Network is going to raise the voice of our housed residents, business leaders, anyone with an interest in this game – that is, everyone – and help people who don’t haven’t had that experience of understanding how unique each person’s situation is,” Baranoff said.
Regardless of how someone became homeless or “whether they need permanent supportive housing due to illness or something more temporary”, the end solution is the same. for everyone, said Baranoff: Everyone needs a roof over their head to get out of homelessness.

Often, Stevens said, elected officials want to hear from voters, but they seem to craft homeless outreach policy without making the effort to hear formative ideas or feedback from residents who have been there.

“I think that by helping to empower people with lived experiences, they can build the confidence to tell their own story. We need to take it easy with people, but hearing true stories can correct misperceptions and inaccuracies that we hear from elected officials and community members who have never known someone who has been left homeless enough to understand that it can be a series of events gone wrong – a simple thing like losing your vehicle or the loss of your job that snowballs into a bigger problem, or a health issue that contributes to the loss of your home. We can bridge the gap by spreading these stories,” Stevens said and these stories can help inform policy.

A video Imani uses as part of outreach and training features a HEAL member identified only as Dennis, who ran a drug treatment center in Orange County before he unexpectedly found himself homeless . He “thought he understood why people end up homeless” until he went through the experience and realized his assumptions were wrong. It’s stories like hers, Imani said, that can lead to better politics, because politicians can also have misinformation or a lack of understanding that can only come from living homeless.

Additionally, she said, some participants told her that the experience of the training, learning to advocate for others is therapeutic.

“When you fall into homelessness, no one hands you a manual on how to be homeless. It helps people become advocates, to understand once you’re not homeless, what’s next? Imani said.

Networking awareness based on homelessness experience



Jennifer C. Burleigh