“A Change Is Gonna Come…” Reflections on #NAEH2023

“It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change gon’ come… Oh yes, it will.” – Sam Cooke

Momentum is building and, with the right leadership, impactful change will come. That is what I took away from the assembly of more than 1100 people in the homeless services field, including system leaders, front-line workers, and federal partners who met earlier this month at the Innovations and Solutions for Ending Unsheltered Homelessness Conference in Oakland, CA. Change, however, doesn’t come without great leadership, and leadership begins with listening.

“We hear you, we’re inspired by you, and we support you.” – Ann Oliva, CEO, National Alliance to End Homelessness | Opening Plenary

We cannot hope to end homelessness without ensuring the voices of those most marginalized, and those working tirelessly to uplift them, are heard. Throughout the conference, workshop presenters and plenary speakers reinforced two key pieces to effecting change:


  • Centering the voices of people with lived experience of homelessness, and
  • Prioritizing racial equity

The first step is promoting a diverse set of voices, which was a primary goal of the Call for Presentations process the Alliance launched for this conference. More than 30 new presenters took the mic to share their work, stories, and ideas through one of three new formats: Innovation Sessions, Spotlight Sessions, and Transformation Talks. These new formats for engagement, along with the promotion of new voices and increase of co-created content with persons of lived expertise helped promote the spirit of inclusion we saw on display throughout the three-day event.

So, what did we learn?

Promoting Autonomy and Centering the Right Voices

“Listen to people with lived experience…and be bold and courageous about change.” – Donald Whitehead, National Coalition for the Homeless | Opening Plenary

Beware of tokenism. Does your organization engage people with lived expertise and BIPOC communities in a meaningful way and allow their experiences and feedback to guide your work? Or are your consumer boards and equity committees more performative than impactful? We must be sure to have authentic engagement with those we seek to serve and settle for nothing less.

“You need to invite us to your table… because when there’s decisions being made about our people, we need to make those decisions… Our stories need to be heard.” – Pamela Hughes, Minnesota Tribal Collaborative | Keynote Plenary

Equal Access requires a thoughtful approach. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Equal Access Rule “requires equal access to HUD housing programs without regard to a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status.” Implementing this rule effectively requires dignity-based services that recognize and respect a person’s gender identity and sexual orientation. See and accept the real human being in front of you, even if their name or pronouns differ on their legal identification documents.

What Works – and What Doesn’t

  • Lowering barriers works. It can be difficult to fight the many misconceptions and stigmas of low-barrier shelters. Promoting a low-barrier approach rooted in Housing First principles ultimately reduces the number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, increases access to assistance, and reduces healthcare costs associated with homelessness.
  • Increasing criminalization causes harm. Nationwide, there is an increase of criminalization of those who are unhoused, including use of illegal or unconstitutional methods. Data shows these practices are ineffective and cause further harm to these communities. Working towards criminal legal system reform, and ensuring the narrative is driven by those being directly affected, is essential in combating these injustices.
  • Diversity. Equity. Inclusion. Justice. Prioritize these values to instill change. Racism plays a complex role within all stages of homelessness and housing, and data shows that Black and Latino populations are over-represented in homelessness populations nationwide. From front-line workers to policy makers and elected officials, strategic and intentional DEIJ initiatives are a must in addressing these disparities.

“This country made a promise, and it hasn’t ever fulfilled it, to allow everyone an opportunity to thrive. And the only people who can teach this country how to make this promise real are the people who have thrived in spite of it.” – Marc Dones, King County Regional Homelessness Authority | Opening Plenary

Many thanks to all those who attended this conference and whose work every day reminds us that ending homelessness is possible.
Be sure to check out the conference platform, where many of the presentation slides can be found, and rewatch the plenaries on Facebook!
More information coming soon about the upcoming National Conference, July 17–19, 2023, in Washington, D.C.