Ten years ago, they didn’t have a spot at the table. Now, they make space for others.

Colorful figures walking up purple stairs.

Illustration by Leela Waehrer

Sitting around a table at Miriam’s Kitchen, the founding members of the People for Fairness Coalition knew the District had a problem. 

They had firsthand experience with the city’s homeless services — and their flaws. Motivated by necessity, the members felt the city ignored people experiencing homelessness when making policies that directly impacted them. So they decided to advocate for themselves. 

“That was a space where I started learning about what to do next,” founding member Albert Townsend said. Now, the city is working to help people with lived experience of homelessness get the necessary tools to advocate for themselves and others by training them as case managers in a first-of-its-kind program. 

D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS)’s new peer case management program will train people who’ve experienced homelessness to become case managers who work to end homelessness for others by connecting them to resources and support. 

About 600 people applied for the program. The first cohort began orientation on March 14. Together, 40 participants will complete three weeks of computer literacy classes and seven weeks of training at Howard University, followed by 80 hours of practice with community organizations with outreach programs for people experiencing homelessness. 

When participants graduate from the program in July, they will have a certification in peer case management, and the connections to work with D.C.-based homeless service providers across the city. 

“The hope is that folks who are coming to this case management program, they have this opportunity to use this experience and move into other spaces, like policy or management,” said Rachel Pierre, the administrator of DHS’s Family Services Administration which oversees the case management program. “This will be a pipeline to bridge out into the homeless services system.” 

Designed partially to remedy a shortage of case managers that has worsened housing voucher delays, the DHS program embodies an emerging prioritization of people with lived experience with homelessness in policy-making and advocacy. Activists have pushed for an expansion of the roles and spaces created for people with lived experience with homelessness for years, and many see this program as an extension of this work. 

Across the country, there has been a rise in the number of people with lived experiences in the room where decisions about homelessness are made — a change in the status quo, according to Reginald Black, a former Street Sense Media vendor and member of the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH). 

“For a while, people who were actively experiencing homelessness weren’t even in these rooms where their fate was being decided, making decisions about shelters, making decisions about how we’re going to distribute vouchers,” Black said. 

Without a voice, people’s lives may be upended or changed without their input. If the city closes a shelter or decides to reduce the number of vouchers it allocates, for instance, that can have a direct impact on the lives of people experiencing homelessness. Black wanted to remind people that whatever someone’s feeling about the issue of homelessness, those who are experiencing homelessness feel it just as much, if not more. 

“You’re offended that people are bringing the problem to your doorstep, but isn’t that the same as a homeless person? If they’re in an encampment, a shelter, that problem is on their doorstep,” Black said. 

While DHS’s peer case management program is the first of its kind, the city has several programs that seek to expand the role of people with lived experience. It’s not just a local change, however. State governments across the country have slowly shifted to bring more people with lived experience to the table. 

The D.C. ICH requires a minimum of three and a maximum of four people with lived experience to serve alongside directors of various agencies to work to end homelessness, as mandated by the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act in 2009. The HEARTH Act mandated the creation of ICHs across the country, expanding the number of people with lived experience involved in the decision-making process. 

To Townsend, now the director of lived experience and innovation for the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), there is an important difference between being involved in decision-making and solutions-making. The former can mean just approving an already prepared policy, while the latter includes people with lived experience in the process of creating solutions from the beginning. 

His position at the NAEH, launched in 2023, echoes a recent push by various state governments and advocacy groups to institutionally structure boards and governing bodies to include people with lived experience. For instance, the California ICH added a Lived Experience Advisory Board that started meeting in the fall of 2023, and Baltimore added a Lived Experience Advisory Committee. 

In the District, the city has also expanded its work to create more space for people with lived experience, including the D.C. Youth Advisory Council, a youth group bringing together people of various backgrounds, including some who have or are currently experiencing homelessness. The Youth Advisory Council and the Consumer Engagement Working Group, which works to increase the participation of people experiencing homelessness in the ICH, both inform and support strategies to end homelessness. 

The peer mentor program represents a new governmental pivot toward recruiting people with lived experience into the homeless services process directly. But while the program is new, people like Rachelle Ellison, the assistant director of the People for Fairness Coalition, have been doing this work for years. 

“I always knew I was going to work with the unhoused population with co-occurring disorders because who better to help them than me?” she said. “I’ve been where they’ve been, I’ve walked in their shoes. I slept in McPherson, I slept in the Church of the Epiphany. Now I do peer mentoring.” 

To Ellison, trust is the essential element behind peer mentoring. For people experiencing homelessness who may mistrust government services, making an initial connection with a peer mentor can make the difference between receiving a voucher or not.

 “We can build rapports faster than people that don’t understand or people that are just booksmart. They know we’ve been where they’re at. I’m not scared to go anywhere some people are scared to go,” Ellison said. 

Building trust is harder than it used to be. When Ellison was transitioning to housing, it took nine days to move off the streets into an apartment. Now, it can take years for people to get off the waitlist for a voucher, adding to feelings of mistrust and hesitancy. 

And when the system is slow to process individual claims, it can have a devastating impact on people’s lives. In 2022, at least 77 people died without a home, over half of whom were in the pipeline to obtain housing through a voucher. For peer mentors, this tragedy can hit closer to home. 

“I didn’t know I was capable of holding someone’s hand while they died until I did it,” Ellison said. “Watching people die, watching my friends — I’ve buried so many of them.” 

While people with lived experience know their expertise can provide a needed perspective, they say it can also make the work even harder. Even working in policy and advocacy extracts a personal toll on people with lived experience.

“You have to sacrifice more of yourself to help create the solution. If you need the solution, you have to stretch yourself more than everybody else in the room,” Black said. 

Rob Robinson, a senior advisor with Partners for Dignity & Rights, remembers several New York administrative meetings about homelessness where he was the only one in the room with lived experience. 

“You want people to be valued, you don’t want to just use them,” he said. “I’m not just here for a photo opp or to shake hands. No, I’m going to challenge you guys to come up with real solutions.” 

While government advisory positions are more frequently compensating people with lived experience, that’s not always the case. Black emphasized that because of the personal toll required from people with lived experience to participate in solutions-making that directly impacts them, compensation is even more important. 

“You couldn’t get paid enough for this work,” Ellison said with a wry smile. 

The DHS peer case management program will compensate students for the entire time they are in the program at $17/hour, including educational and practical training. 

While there are currently no plans to expand the program, Pierre hopes that the success of the first cohort will enable them to launch a second. 

To Black, this program is just the first step toward offering more career opportunities for people experiencing homelessness, including outside of homeless services. 

“We should have a program that sets people up to be government employees, that should be elected officials. We should be looking at all our jobs in the city, from top to bottom, to try to get people into those career paths wherever the person might be,” Black said. 

Townsend also called on governments to shift away from accountability measures that retroactively approve or disapprove of actions and toward direct inclusion. His policy experience — built from years of local advocacy and coalition building — now has a national impact. 

“Right now we are invited to the table, there’s not a space carved out,” Townsend said. “When I started that work it wasn’t really common.” 

Although his role and the DHS program are the first of their kind, Townsend is optimistic they won’t be the last. “I may not be a person who can make the change but I can open the door so other people can come in so we can start the change process,” he said. 

Issues |Community|Housing|Social Services

Region |Washington DC

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