Guest Post – Homeless Experience Advocacy and Leadership (HEAL)

Written by Guest Contributor Michael Williams, an ex-homeless veteran and author/publisher of books on homelessness, domestic violence, and parental drinking.  

The San Diego Housing Federation heals some of the most critical challenges of our community in the most resourceful ways imaginable.

The voices of our friends, family, and neighbors who are without homes are rarely heard within our society. Even more rarely are these voices heard within the spectrum of ascertaining knowledge acquired from the lived experience of homelessness. The San Diego Housing Federation uniquely assembles, listens to, trains, and develops these folks for advocacy throughout San Diego County.

While there are many assumptions for those without homes the reality is the population is composed from every cross section imaginable; the elderly, single mothers, veterans, families, the disabled, substance abusers, pregnant mothers, HIV infected, those who lost jobs, those who became ill, those who work over-time daily, the divorced, domestic violence victims, youth transitioning out of foster care, senior citizens, college students, those affected by economic conditions, and those with mental health challenges whether that being the cause of homelessness or a result thereof. While this description is not all inclusive it makes the point that life is a journey of varied evolutions. There is a diversity of causations of homelessness that lends itself to the interconnectedness of our community.

When we make an evaluation of the cross sections of population without homes, we have to admit that all of us have been a member at one time or another of one or more of these intersections of life; or if we have not been, we someday will be. It is in this light that the San Diego Housing Federation recently graduated its inaugural class from the six-week HEAL training program. These twenty-two people are now advocating on the city, county and state levels in all manner of advocacies; however, these advocates bring a distinctive and irreplaceable attribute into the conversation. They bring learned knowledge from the lived experience of homelessness into policy development. They give wisdom!

Those who have experienced homelessness can speak of it with an authoritative knowledge, command, and insight. From this insight we gain an empathy that enlightens our actions on the way to efficient and helpful public policy.

The HEAL program has conferred with public officials. As of this writing council member Chris Ward and Deputy Major Consuela Martinez have been involved with the program. Additionally, HEAL advocates have had influences in Vista, Escondido, and throughout North County. The program has been able to inform policy makers to subtle distinctions such as a variation of challenges for the homeless in San Diego City versus North County; such nuances are hardly ever noticeable to those who have not experienced the challenges.

Laura Nunn, Director of Policy & Programs for the San Diego Housing Federation made several observations concerning HEAL. She wants the existence of HEAL to be better known throughout the community, this in itself will create more opportunities for advocacy. Advocacy will have a positive impact upon funding which is desperately needed i.e., as stated earlier there is a six-week training for each participant as a beginning. Laura eloquently describes the courage it takes on the part of HEAL members to perform this kind of advocacy. Each person must have a high degree of willingness and believe in the power of their stories to create change. It is a rare display of vulnerability and courageousness for the public good.

I attended a training of HEAL advocates and noted, 1) there is no discernible way to tell that each had previously been homeless, 2) the degree to which each participant is informed is striking, 3) as a group their level of anticipation in terms of making a difference is admirable, especially considering that each has survived an experience that many do not come back from, and 4) their shared joy.

During this training I observed the participants working on effective communication techniques, developing structural policies, creating training norms, and the development of a safe space without judgement from which to do their work. The real brilliance of these gutsy folks did not become apparent until the last three minutes of the meeting. Three people volunteered to tell their stories before the group for one minute each.

I was extraordinarily moved emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. A tear came to my eye, and then I laughed; an astonishing range of emotions to experience in three minutes. I came to realize the HEAL program is not about housing. It is about people. It is about people who need a place to lay their head, it is about our humanity, and it is about who we chose to be as a community.

Maya Angelou once commented, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I will eternally remember how I felt as I listened to HEAL advocates. They stirred my humanity.

If you would like to explore what can be done individually, collectively, or for the same powerful and passionate connection to your own humanity, contact Mehrsa Imani, Resident & Community Organizer, at the San Diego Housing Federation or [email protected] or 619-239-6695.