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Why People with Lived Expertise on Homelessness are Critical to Solving the Issue

Written by Amiyoko Shabazz and Jon Christian

One of the top concerns among Angelenos is homelessness. But no one else feels the
frustration more than those who have or are experiencing homelessness or who are on the
edge of teetering into homelessness. With more than 30 years of living on and off the streets,
we have navigated through the whole system, from homelessness to waiting lists, to now
advocating for those who are experiencing homelessness. That right there makes us the
experts. Our input is critical to the success of any program that wants to solve homelessness.
But our input is not often sought.

That’s why it was groundbreaking when a group of researchers commissioned by the Committee for Greater LA, a nonpartisan group of civic leaders working toward a more equitable Los Angeles, led focus groups with people who have experienced homelessness in our county. It’s why we participated and provided guidance and feedback to the team at Redstone and the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a nonprofit
supportive housing provider conducted the research.

The research was intended to seek input from people who have experienced homelessness to
better understand their perspective on governance challenges and solutions. The researchers
asked questions about housing insecurities and the root cause of how and why people become
unhoused. As people with lived expertise, we helped develop questions and helped facilitate
conversations with Angelenos who had experienced homelessness.

This is what the focus groups revealed:
-A lack of centralized leadership, regional planning, and accountability create
miscoordination that is strongly felt by those experiencing homelessness. Our peers
shared frustration about unequal access to services across neighborhoods and about
not having one specific agency to turn to for support.

-The Los Angeles housing and homelessness systems have struggled to create and
provide access to housing options and connect the unhoused population to dignified
services. For example, respondents shared issues with agencies distributing housing
vouchers and finding landlords willing to accept them.

-Improved coordination between the County, cities, and the Los Angeles Homeless Service
Authority (LAHSA), and public agencies are needed to increase housing and provide
supportive services.

-Compassionate case managers, navigators, and advocates, including those with lived
expertise, are vital and deserve ongoing investment and support.

-People who have experienced homelessness should have formal roles on the ground
and in senior leadership across the system given their expertise.

-A narrative that shows the reality of life for people who experience homelessness can
strengthen the ongoing and future efforts to solve homelessness in Los Angeles

These concerns are issues we are deeply familiar with.

One thing we both have experienced is the lack of wrap-around services connected to supportive housing such as mental health support. We have gone through the ins and outs of this overloaded system ourselves. That’s why we need to be at the table to be part of the solution to homelessness. Many who are struggling cannot access services unless they are actually experiencing homelessness. We must navigate through complex systems that seem to have been designed for us to fail. And even when many of us manage to get into supportive housing and thrive, there is a lack of coordinated services and support to help us continue to thrive.

The issues raised during these focus groups are like what voters who have not experienced
homelessness raised in earlier focus group research conducted by the Committee. These
respondents view the current government system that oversees homelessness as fragmented,
uncoordinated, and has major gaps in care for the very vulnerable.

No one feels this lack of alignment, coordination, and accountability more than we do, as
people who have experienced homelessness. Efforts that want to address homelessness would
benefit from the voices of those of us with firsthand experience.

We urge the County and City to work together for a unified strategy that gets results, and
where public systems are held accountable to achieve shared goals. We see positive steps in
the Blue Ribbon Commission on Homelessness’s recommendation to move us closer to these
goals. Recommendations such as creating a County agency to unify agencies into a more
effective system and the sharing of data between agencies and systems. The sharing of data
would minimize the impact of so many different systems and the stress of being processed
through these systems. We heard from our peers that they felt there was a compelling need for
a centralized governing body that would bring coordination to the services by connecting these
services to those most in need.

As one focus group respondent with lived expertise said, “We need a better strategy, to be able
to come to the table. We need not divide, but come together.”

Amiyoko Shabazz and Jon Christian are advocates with lived expertise committed to resolving
the issue of homelessness in Los Angeles County.