Flipping the Sheet: Reflections on the 2016 National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness

All photos: Andrew Giampa

“We’re going to do some ice breakers to help us get to know each other better.”

The leader told our group of 17 to all get up, stand on a flat bed sheet on the ground, and flip the sheet without anyone stepping off of it. If someone’s foot touched any part other than the sheet, we would have to start over again.

IMG_20160217_101622We were a group of young adults who had all experienced homelessness who came together for the 2016 National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness in Oakland, California—the annual event hosted by National Alliance To End Homelessness. Some of the young adults had started their own drop in centers, outreach programs, and health services. Others were advocates for foster care reform or HIV prevention. I was there representing the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance’s Leadership Development Program and the advocacy work being done in Boston.

Turning over that sheet wasn’t easy. We had to communicate, strategize, and operate as a whole. We had to start over four times. We got frustrated when we had to start over. We had to get physically close to people we had just met. One of the participants said “this is fastest I’ve ever let anyone touch me!” But eventually, someone took charge and came up with a game plan and began directing people. With teamwork and good communication, we were able to flip the sheet.

The rest of the conference was really amazing. There were over 1,000 people that attended – people from all over the country coming together to talk about how to end homelessness. Everyone that spoke was brilliant and I learned so many new things. I learned about rapid re-housing (in addition to permanent housing), the idea of converting vacant properties into affordable housing, and the need for an online resource portal that would enable service providers to do a universal intake. I realized that while places all over the country have programs that work with people experiencing homelessness, each program works really differently—and some seem to work better than others.

The other great part of the conference was getting to see Oakland and San Francisco. I had never been to California, and was the first time in 13 years that I have been outside of Massachusetts. The weather was nicer, and the people seemed friendlier. For example, one evening I had walked to get food and it was raining and windy. I had my umbrella, but it didn’t work very well. After exiting the store and opening my umbrella, a woman pulled up in her car and noticed that I was having trouble with my umbrella. She asked me if I needed a ride somewhere. I was shocked – this would never happen in Boston! She dropped me off at the hotel and drove away without asking for anything.

IMG_20160216_160716I can say, based on what I have seen and the conversations I have had with both homeless and housed people from different states that homelessness exists everywhere, whether you see it or not. Sometimes homeless people do not want to be found because of harassment, abuse, and stigma. I would say that across the nation, and likely the world, the root causes of homelessness are the same – that their home is unsafe, abusive or unsupportive. There could also be discrimination towards those who identify as LGBTQ. The levels of homelessness in some states have risen drastically over the past couple of years, Massachusetts being one of them.

I am really thankful that I got to attend the conference. I met new people, made a lot of new friends, and brought back ideas for how to change things in Massachusetts. I hope that other people get the opportunity to attend a conference like this. I hope that by working together we can eventually end homelessness in Massachusetts and everywhere.



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