A week after the live stream of the virtual 2020 Town Hall on Ending Homelessness, I am still on an emotional high due to the overwhelming positive reception of the event. As the Director of Events, I was disappointed that the Alliance was unable to hold its annual National Conference on Ending Homelessness and Capitol Hill Day due to the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. I knew that there was no way that we could replicate the energy, learning, and networking that has defined our annual event each July for more than two decades. But I also knew we were up to the challenge.
The Town Hall event was created to reflect on the progress made to house people, inspire continued energy towards ending homelessness, engage virtually with one another, and to let Congress know what resources are still needed. In case you missed it, here’s a brief recap of the Town Hall.
Lifting the Sky – Making the Impossible Possible
The first portion of the event featured history on the issue of homelessness, and several speakers highlighted the importance of us all working together now to end it – especially considering the challenges presented with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Town Hall kicked off with a moving story by Native American storyteller Roger Fernades. Mr. Fernandes reminded us all that although housing people seems impossible, with collaboration, conventional wisdom, and experience, we can achieve the unachievable.
Irene Mabry Moses, an Alliance Board Member who has experienced homelessness, urged everyone in positions of power to provide those with lived experience with a seat at the table and in positions of decision making. This advice proved to be a consistent theme in the Town Hall.
With the influx of resources through the CARES Act and FEMA, the Alliance and several partners have released the Framework for an Equitable COVID-19 Homelessness Response, which was designed to help guide use of these resources in a wise and strategic fashion. More information on how communities can use the Framework can be found on the Framework page, and on the Alliance’s YouTube playlist.
Changing Times: Homelessness, Racial Justice, Criminalization and Policing, and Philanthropy
There is a strong connection between race and homelessness, and this link was made evident throughout the Town Hall. In a time of heightened awareness of racial injustice, and a more engaged will to end these disparities, Town Hall speakers noted just how important it is to work towards racial equity – particularly in the homelessness field.
Dr. Va Lecia Adams Kellum, of St. Joseph’s Center in Los Angeles, CA, reflected on the tough past few months we have all experienced because of the pandemic, racial injustice, and killings of Ahmaud Aubrey, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor. Dr. Kellum expressed her gratitude for staff and leaders who kept working throughout these crises, and those who continue to end homelessness in their communities.
Remarks from Dr. Lucius Couloute, professor at Suffolk University, highlighted the connection between the criminal justice system and homelessness, including three policy and legislative recommendations to interrupt the incarceration to homelessness pipeline: eliminating over policing, banning the box on housing applications that asks about criminal history, and instituting automatic criminal record expungement proceedings. Amanda Andere, CEO of Funders Together to End Homelessness, also explained the role of philanthropy in responding to the pandemic and centering black, indigenous, and LGBTQ+ voices at the center of funding and decision making.
Even though these measures may seem removed from homelessness itself, all of these smaller steps can help to reduce the amount of people who become homeless due to systemic racism. As Alliance Director of Individual Homeless Adults Chandra Crawford noted during the Town Hall, “It is our responsibility to make sure that we are working towards racial equity. Most importantly, we want to make sure that we are focused on dismantling racist practices and racist systems.” Town Hall speakers noted this importance during the event, especially in planning out the future of ending homelessness past the COVID-19 pandemic.
Responding to COVID-19 and Charting a Path Forward
Due to the increased need for quality data and the efforts from partners in response to the pandemic, the third segment focused on the intersection of health and homelessness. This intersection was especially made clear by Bobby Watts, CEO, National Health Care for the Homeless Council, who thanked those on providing medical services to our neighbors without homes. With this new reality, we were reminded that health care and housing is a human right.
These principles were evident in efforts in led by Connecticut and Virginia, respectively. As outlined in the Town Hall by Steve DiLella and Nichele Carver, both states have relied heavily on hotel usage to move people out of congregate shelters. In Virginia, the response to COVID-19 has led the leaders of that state to develop a plan for ending homelessness for the nearly 6,000 people experiencing homelessness.
Stories from these locations show that our response to the pandemic can shape how the homeless system operates in the future, and Governor Gavin Newsom reminded everyone that “in times of uncertainty, fear and anxiety comes opportunity and innovation.”
Your Voice Matters: It Needs to be Heard
But these necessary opportunities and innovations are only possible with adequate funding, and this funding still needs to be passed by Congress. It is up to advocates to inform Congress of these needs.
Speaker Pelosi, Senator Susan Collins, Representative Mario Diaz Balart, and Chairwoman Maxine Waters all exclaimed that they are not able to do their work in Congress without the tireless advocates working in the field. Learn more about what this advocacy entails, and why it’s so important now, on the Alliance’s Take Action page.
One of the biggest highlights of this section came from Ms. Suzette Shaw, a Los Angeles Ambassador and Grassroots Advocate for Skid Row. Ms. Shaw captivated the audience by sharing her personal story and the trauma she experienced as a black woman living on Skid Row. Her words challenged us, encouraged us, and moved everyone to action. Suzette’s journey toward healing has resulted in her mission to help herself and others; she is a leader in this movement and called for those in power to step back and allow those with lived experience to lead discussions. It is important now more than ever to heed her call.
The close of the event expressed deep gratitude for the field’s work to end homelessness – especially during COVID-19 and in the midst of racial injustice. The field received shoutouts from R&B hip-hop sister duo Ceraadi, who thanked those who continue to help the homeless population, and rock star legend Jon Bon Jovi, who also praised the heroic acts of those on the frontlines helping individuals and family access services and housing.
Both Ceraadi and Jon Bon Jovi emphasized messages from earlier in the Town Hall: asking each person viewing the Town Hall by making sure people who are homeless are registered to vote, and provided the resources to do so. It was encouraging to hear this work affirmed from dozens of people, but also to have celebrities notice and appreciate just how hard the homeless services field works to house people, and to keep them housed.
As we did during the Town Hall, the Alliance staff would again like to express gratitude for each and every person working on the front lines to end homelessness. Each one of us continues to thank you, and we are looking forward to continuing working with you to end homelessness.