The Power of Unity and Awareness: Reflections from the National Alliance to End Homelessness Conference 2016

When looking for a solution to a problem as big as youth and family homelessness, it’s obvious that we cannot think small. As an advocate, I don’t often see youth and family homelessness addressed at the same event. However, it’s important that they are.

Think about it for a moment: the only difference between a homeless young woman and a homeless single mother is pregnancy. However, the types of services they have access to are entirely different. I’m a staunch advocate for the importance of peer-guided leadership roles and their role in building trust and ensuring that the needs of clients are met.

IMG_20160216_171612396Having worked as a peer leader at the Youth on Fire drop-in center, having helped form the youth advisory board for the Youth 2 Youth shelter in Harvard square and having been a facilitator for the young adult leadership development program at the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, I’ve seen firsthand the strength that comes from being able to meet people on common ground where we can use our knowledge to empower each other. While we do have individual needs that often strike a  common chord, this cannot turn into infighting. We can’t only focus on the needs of one group and expect to find a permanent solution. We need to always consider the fact that the way a person’s life unfolds is filled with countless possibilities, and many of these possibilities can result in that person facing homelessness.

Human beings are multifaceted, and I would argue that it’s not entirely sensible to focus so much on prioritizing housing and other resources for specific categories of people. It would be more practical to work toward lowering barriers and ending systemic barriers for all. We need to understand how closely related all of these categories actually are. We can’t only fight to make sure the needs of one group are met without keeping the needs of all other groups in mind. Any system that remains imbalanced is one that is going to fail. To put it bluntly, we cannot only look at the end of our noses if we actually want to see the changes we are advocating for. We cannot hope to merely sit comfortably in our own factions.

This is a message that deserves to be heard across the board. The share of ideas and resources is invaluable. In a city that’s so well known for its education and innovation, our program offerings and inter-organizational communication shouldn’t remain in the Dark Ages. Despite having many innovative resources and opportunities, too many of these resources are not receiving the visibility they deserve. As such, they are not being used by those in need. Due to this, too often we see many start-ups popping up with the well intentioned goal of addressing an unmet need in the community, only to realize another similar organization is operating nearby.

Often, what unfortunately happens is that you see these groups in competition to receive funding from the same limited source. This can spread resources thin or leave a gap in services that could have been avoided by forming a partnership. The idea is to do the most good we can and to remove the barriers that prevent people from getting the help and quality of life they deserve. An interest only in one’s own program does not provoke the compassion that’s needed to address the true scope of the issues. Even if the help someone needs cannot be accessed at the tip of your finger, you can still point them in the right direction.

When speaking about issues of homelessness at a national level, the National Alliance to End Homelessness has made 2020 the year it wants homelessness to be ended. Although this is four years away, this does not seem like an impossible mission to me. We need to stand up for the notion that all people deserve a safe place to live and that housing is a universal human right. It’s time we send local and national policymakers the same message. The fact that this year is an election year is especially important in terms of shaping the trajectory of the next four years. For anyone involved in advocacy or the fight for human rights, now is not the time to remain silent. Nor is it the time to allow a system we know needs repair to risk being grossly under prioritized.

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In four years, if we work together in our communities to help people get where they need to be, if we protect our neighborhoods from gentrification, if we fight for legal recourse to protect ourselves against discriminatory renting practices, if we no longer allow unused properties to fall into abandoned disrepair, if we make our voices heard and demand a government that works for its people, if we no longer allow the system to set people up to fail, if we stand up for our human rights and if we refuse to settle for complacency, we can make this goal a reality.

To do this, we need to keep ourselves aware, involved and connected. We are all in this together.

Kitty Zen is a humanitarian activist, advocate, and artist. She is currently a youth advocacy coordinator with Y2Y and a facilitator of the leadership development class for homeless youth at MHSA.

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