A conversation with the ICH’s executive director

A line drawing of a woman sitting behind a computer in an office.

Illustration by Nikila Smith

For over a year, Street Sense vendor Nikila Smith has been regularly attending meetings of D.C.’s Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) to advocate for herself and other people experiencing homelessness. Through her participation, Smith learned about resources available in D.C. Now, she’s been appointed to the ICH Full Council. 

Smith recently sat down with D.C.’s Director to End Homelessness and Executive Director of the ICH, Theresa Silla, to talk about the services available in D.C., and how other people with lived experience can get involved with the ICH. 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Nikila Smith: I want to let everyone get information. Some of the information that I have and that you have, they’re gonna be needing. So the first question is: Why did you want to be a part of ICH? 

Theresa Silla: Before I joined the ICH, I was providing technical assistance to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grantees when the housing market collapsed in 2008. That was the first time the federal government shifted funding towards homelessness prevention and Rapid Rehousing on a national level. 

That was when I really got involved with homeless services. When you are working at a national level, it is interesting, but when you are working for local government, you are much more closely connected to the impact of the work you are doing. I used to work for the city of New Haven in affordable housing and it used to blow me away the projects we were funding would literally change the landscape of the city. You could drive around and you could see the difference you were making in people’s lives. 

So when I heard the District’s ICH needed support, I was so excited to make that transition, to be able to connect directly with the people who are experiencing homelessness and to see the impact of my work.

That gives me — I already have a feel of you, but it gives me more of a feel of you. I absolutely love it. The next question I want to ask is: Why do you care about homelessness? 

I don’t know. You know, I think I care about people. My first interest and love was ecology. We would be talking about conserving rainforests or really valuable ecological resources and conserving meant you had to remove people from the environment. And to me, people should be the center. We care about the animals, we care about the plants, we care about nature but people felt like they should be at the center of the work we were doing.

The other thing that’s really important to me is fairness. And to me, there is just something fundamentally wrong about all of the resources that are available in this world, and then for me to be living in the United States, and I’m not American, but to know the kind of wealth that exists and to see there are people who do not have access to that wealth, to those opportunities — that, to me, feels wrong. And I’m not saying we need to overthrow capitalism, that’s not what I’m saying at all, but everybody deserves access and opportunity and I would like the work I do and the way I spend my time to advance that. 

So can I ask you, how does it benefit the ICH to hear from the point of view of people with lived experience? 

It is absolutely imperative to have the people who are at the center of our efforts in the room. Your voice matters so much because we can be planning and dreaming about the perfect vision for a program, but it doesn’t meet the needs of the people that are experiencing homelessness. I’m not walking in those shoes. I don’t have that experience. We need direct feedback, we need to know what is working and what is not working from your perspective. 

So every time you’re in a meeting and you tell us what it feels like to encounter security when you walk up to the building, that’s critical. I remember that meeting where, from the perspective of government staff, they were saying “Well, when you go to the airport, everybody has to go through a security check, so it shouldn’t be that big a deal that everybody going to a shelter is going through a security check.” 

And when you were able to stop that meeting, stop that conversation, and say “Hey, I want you to know what it feels like to have to go through security every night just to get a bed, how dehumanizing that experience is.” That’s powerful. We don’t know what that experience looks like. We’re comparing the experience of going to a shelter to the experience of airport travel. So, it’s absolutely critical that we have the voice of someone who is living, breathing homelessness for us to understand what we are talking about. 

I appreciate you for that, because it’s like everyone I talk to, they say the same thing. At the shelter, every time we go out and come back in we have to be checked. It’s very uncomfortable. And I told the staff — since we’re in this together and you all lead by example, how about you get checked every time you’re coming and going? 

Not to take us off what we’re doing. Do you think ICH is beneficial to the community, and how? 

I think it’s critical to the community. The ICH was enacted, like in legislation, because the community wanted an ICH. I think that speaks to how important the community thinks it is to have a planning table where the government and community come together to think about the vision for homeless services. 

This is a space where we make sure every voice is heard, this is a space where data about homelessness becomes available to people who experience homelessness, right? So that it’s not just the executive directors, the program directors that have this data, but the frontline staff, the advocates, and you yourself. Before the ICH, there wasn’t a comprehensive plan to end homelessness, and the services were not coordinated in quite the same place. 

I did not expect you to say that the community wanted the ICH. That’s a big thing for me because I felt sometimes people don’t really care, so that lets me know people care. I really appreciate that one. 

I want to reassure you, especially because our work is so hard and it doesn’t feel like we are making progress, of the power of community in the District. Homeless services, we make or break elections here in the District. The advocacy is incredible, and the attention that the mayor, the city administrator and the deputy mayor pay to homeless services is incredible — even if it doesn’t feel that way from your perspective and your seat. 

While I’ve been homeless, most of my time has been spent living on the street and it was horrible. When we’re living like this, we’re cut off from the community, so we wouldn’t know what you’re fighting for. It’s hard to get information. If I didn’t get into the ICH meetings or work at Street Sense I would be lost about what’s going on and that’s like really, really horrible. 

How can people become involved in ICH? When I say people, I am talking about people with lived experience. How can they onboard and get in? 

My favorite part of this job is that anyone can join the ICH, anyone can attend our meetings. All you have to do is sign up for the listserv, you’ll get a calendar invite for the meetings and you can participate. 

There are other more official ways to participate — the ICH Full Council is made up of 16 agency partners and community representatives appointed by the mayor. But our meetings, for the most part, are open to the public, anyone and everyone can come. 

I am trying to also transition us to a place where we have leadership slates for our workgroups and committees because our conversations are evolving. So it’s important that people who are participating don’t think of our space as the space where you fly in, give all your concerns and feedback then just leave. We are trying to transform the system, which means our meetings have agendas, which means we have priorities and projects that we are working on and that we are trying to advance. So for that reason, we are also trying to cultivate leaders, people who are going to be committed to learning about the system. 

I was thinking about, you know, how I first onboarded and you had to keep telling me — “Ms. Nikila, this is not the meeting for that, you have to go to this and that.” When you’re first coming to the ICH, you have all these overwhelming feelings and you want to get it out. So we don’t understand you can’t just say everything out, you have to stick to the topic. 

I didn’t understand that for a long time till somebody sat down and broke that down to me. Is there some type of way we could work on that when we have new people coming in? 

We need that, so that’s why we are hiring a special advisor to support with participatory planning and strategic communications and create the orientation materials to help onboard people. 

Another part of this is as the ICH, we have to understand that when people come and they want to express themselves, they don’t have the ability to track 16 monthly meetings and make sure that they show up to the right meeting, right? It’s up to us to take the feedback. So we are also trying to do our part in terms of tracking constituent concerns and not expecting people who are experiencing homelessness, people who are facing food insecurity, people who have lots of barriers to track and come to the right meeting. 

Can you give me some information on the women’s initiative? I think it’s a very good idea. 

So for years, people were flagging to us that we didn’t have enough women involved in the ICH — we’ve had amazing women, but it was always one woman flanked by a lot of men, and they highlighted to us consistently that we needed women at the table, especially because in the family system it’s mostly single mothers. What I really appreciate is that the People for Fairness Coalition, when they got funding, they decided that it was important enough for them to ensure that women were seated at our table. They said if you were offering stipends to women, there are lots of women who want to participate. They literally showed us the light. 

For instance, you let us know about food access challenges, not that I didn’t know food was a huge concern for people experiencing homelessness, but I think what’s really powerful is the kinds of nuances you’re telling us relative to food. 

If I say how much money I spend to eat when I’m outside, that’s unbelievable, it could have been in my savings. And we don’t get enough food stamps as singles. 

This is where there is a lot of work to be done. And we need to figure out what we can do and what we are not yet able to do. Homeless services is not set up to address poverty and I don’t say that to pass the buck, I’m saying that so that we have a real understanding about the limits and constraints that we are working in. And then how do we need to transform the system so we’re appropriately and adequately addressing all the issues that come along with homelessness? 

Like returning citizens and housing, they run neck and neck. Once you first get arrested, let’s say, hypothetically, you have two years. Once you get in the system, your plan for two years from now should be your housing, it should start that day. So when you leave prison in two years, your housing should be put in place, and you’re moving into your place instead of moving to the street. 

We are standing in a gaping gap. I am not at all discounting anything that you are saying, I hear you, I feel you. Discharge planning needs to start the day you join a program, every program needs to be thinking about what are the next steps. Every program, all the time across all of these systems should be doing this work. 

What’s upsetting is every year they have the vigil. And I got really upset because I thought if I died today or tomorrow won’t nobody remember me but I’ll be a number with a name on the list as a homeless person who died. I don’t want that, I want people to enjoy me while I’m here. I’m a married woman, with six kids and two grandkids, I’m just going through something right now. I have some good ideas and I want to help, I just need somebody to listen to me, and I’m willing to listen to you. If it sounds feasible and I can do it, I’mma do it. But I do know people are getting paid off of this. 

So here’s the thing. I think you and I both agree if you are working, you need to get paid for that. We live in a world and things are set up in a way you need to be compensated for your work. 

So when you say people are benefitting from this system — I went to Yale University, I got two undergraduate degrees and I got a master’s degree. I was set up to go in a completely different direction. I chose to be in homeless services. I worked my ass off to get to a place where I am now earning almost $180,000 but do you know what I’d be earning if I was working somewhere else? 

I definitely wasn’t talking about you. 

It’s not that. You have to believe the people who are working in our field, most of them are underpaid. It’s not that we don’t want systems, we just want the systems to work, and we absolutely want people to be compensated for their work. So we have to be very careful about how we’re attacking the system, because ultimately don’t you want to be compensated for your work? Of course, you do. 

Don’t you want to be helping and working in homeless services yourself? Of course, you do. So we got to have a real conversation about what we want out of the system, yes. But we want the system, we don’t want chaos. 

We want the system, we want the one that works, I don’t want the one that’s a Band-Aid, I want the one that’s gonna perform surgery on me and I look good after. And I have worked all my life, I believe in certain things, I don’t care if I’m gonna be homeless. 

You know what’s the hardest part about this? I’m 45, I turned 44 living in a tent, I turned 45 living in the shelter. I don’t know where I’m gonna be when I turn 46 and I’m getting older and when I get to the age I’m supposed to retire, is that when I’m gonna get some rest or am I gonna be housed or am I gonna die before that? It’s really, really scary because I don’t have anybody over here. I just want the system to work and I want to help. I just want to be paid too. 

And that’s why we’re doing this work together in partnership. I want you to know we see you, we understand you. 

Editor’s note: As mentioned in the article, Nikila Smith is also a member of the ICH. 

Issues |Hunger|Incarceration|Social Services

Region |Washington DC

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