Sandoval: Listening to people with lived experience is central to ending homelessness
Members of PATH’s Lived Experience Focus Group—Terrel Jones, Derek Lu, Katelyn Swanson and Ericka Mendieta—gather on the roof of Villas on the Park for a community meeting. Photo courtesy of PATH.

Homelessness impacts everyone—either directly or indirectly—and many of us have opinions on causes and solutions. From elected officials to your next-door neighbor, this topic weighs heavy on our minds and hearts. We can’t help but ponder what it would take to make things better—it’s human nature to try to make sense of what we see.

Yet because many of our interactions are limited to seeing people during their lowest moments, it’s easy for stereotypes and misconceptions to creep into our thoughts: mental illness, substance use, crime. Without a personal understanding, we risk conflating the solution to homelessness—homes—with the treatment for the side effects of homelessness: mental health care, sobriety and police intervention.

If we are to truly understand and substantively reduce homelessness, we must listen to the voices of people with lived experience and trust their wisdom.

Our friends at Destination: Home are doing that with Santa Clara County’s Lived Experience Advisory Board (LEAB), a leadership development body consisting of members with current or past experience of homelessness. LEAB is frequently consulted for input on items ranging from site design to program evaluation. Their voices are paving the way for significant improvements to our system of care.

At PATH, we’ve regularly learned from our participants through their responses to feedback surveys. Each year, PATH conducts a statewide survey to better understand the people we serve and tailor our services to meet their needs.

In 2021, we surveyed 1,414 participants across the six regions we serve. In San Jose, we have learned most respondents in our local service area have been homeless for a year or longer—85%—and over half have been homeless for more than three years. An overwhelming 87% of local respondents ranked housing as their top ongoing priority, directly challenging the notion that “people want to be homeless.”

In addition to surveys, we ask those with lived experience to advise us how we can design programs and services that will be more broadly accessible to people in our community. Nicole Buccalo, PATH community affairs specialist, has spent the last year interviewing those who are currently homeless and those who were recently housed to ask the question: what are we missing when it comes to more effective housing services?

Through these multiple layers of feedback, we consistently hear the fundamental need for safe places. From two currently unhoused people, we were told:

“(I need) a safe place to sleep. Most of the time I am scared to sleep in the streets because people might hurt you or steal your things. Without sleep you mentally break down.”

“What’s still on my mind is when they do sweeps. I’ve had six different camps in the past four years. When the sweeps happen, you have to go back to survival mode rather than working on climbing the ladder. There can be danger when you move to a new spot.”

When asked what types of shelter or housing options they were interested in, about three-fourths remain interested in micro units, although affordability remains a barrier. Interest in tiny homes went down to 32% from 69%; for shared housing, it went down to 23% from 40% previously. This brings us to the conclusion that unhoused people need more affordable rental homes, and lots of them.

Jobs and education are on the minds of our participants. When asked for things that could have made a difference in their lives, their answers echo similar hopes and struggles:

“Employment. I have no ID and no information from California. I have no address. I can’t get an ID back home.”

“Not having proper papers and IDs to accomplish the things I need to accomplish. Not having money to do things like catch the bus. Not having the right information about whatever it is I may be pursuing.”

“Going to school so I could get a better job. It would have helped to have financial support for school.”

“I want to go back to school so bad but it’s hard to get a student loan.”

From these feedback loops, PATH received feedback to better focus on “developing a budget and exploring options for income or an increased income.” Our participants have a strong desire to be economically secure, and PATH is exploring new avenues to support our participants’ economic empowerment through financial education and employment services.

When asked what the general population should know about being unhoused, we heard the following reflections:

“It takes a lot of skill and energy to maintain life at an encampment. These are not lazy people. They are trying to do the best they can. They are survivors. They are very strong. They have the kind of grit that is very beneficial to a community.”

“The unhoused can use a helping hand. Giving them hope—letting them know they have a chance and making them feel it. Not stereotyping and thinking that people are all that same or that they will never change.”

We applaud the strength and resiliency of our unhoused neighbors. Each person’s experience is as unique as they are, and PATH commits to learn from true experts how to do even better work as we launch into the new year.

This year, let’s all commit to listening to people with lived experience and trust their guiding wisdom on what it takes to end homelessness.

San José Spotlight columnist Laura Sandoval is a regional director at PATH San Jose, a homeless services and housing development agency. She is also a licensed clinical social worker with over a decade of experience. Her columns appear every fourth Monday of the month. Contact Laura at [email protected]

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