Making Lived Experience Count in Your NOFO Application

This post is authored by LaRae Cantley, Social Justice Activist.

HUD’s 2021 Continuum of Care (CoC) Program Competition Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) is an opportunity to radically advance systems change. Specifically, we have the opportunity to collaboratively and collectively work towards solutions to end homelessness by operationalizing racial equity through the unique strategy of involving experts with lived experience of homelessness.

Knowing that there is a disproportionate representation of black people and people of color experiencing or at greater risk of facing homelessness, the best way to remedy this crisis is to meaningfully include the experts who have successfully navigated homelessness. Simultaneously, we must learn from those that are currently working their way through systems and services to get to stable housing.

HUD is incentivizing communities with an opportunity for CoCs to enhance their NOFO application point totals by engaging in this work. According to HUD guidance, “a new category has been added to Section VII.B of this NOFO to promote inclusion in the local planning process of current and former homeless persons with lived experience to:

  1. address homelessness;
  2. determine how local policies may need to be revised and updated;
  3. participate in CoC meetings and on committees as stakeholders;
  4. provide input for decisions; and
  5. provide input related to the local competition process.”

This opportunity requires dedication to acting with innovative courage. It demands commitment to actualizing practices that express the need to value every human being, prioritize dignity over processes, and push up against the comfortable constructs that allow the continuation of “the ways things have always been done.”

Why CoCs Need to Listen to People with Lived Experience of Homelessness

The homeless services field needs the infrastructure to allow equity to be in action. We need it to dismantle our current view of “worthiness” regarding the disconnect between who gets access to what. And we need to acknowledge how the NOFO is competitive and already presses the idea that we compete; therefore, someone wins and someone loses. The prize can only go to those that qualify to play.

CoCs that enter the program competition without the input of people with lived experience put themselves at a disadvantage for funding. They also put the people they serve at an even further disadvantage to receive the help they need. So many people have been left of the input and decision-making that would otherwise enhance the program competition process. So many are disconnected from the entire topic by way of carrying the heaviest weights of life. They are overwhelmed with navigating the strategic maze of barriers that we identify as inequities.

These barriers propel people of color into a momentum-building conundrum of mental strain and hardship that leads to lifestyle habits to survive, only to be later blamed for their inability to equitably “play the game” and participate in the activities that are supposed lead to the benefits of privileged circumstances like the security of homeownership and living the “American dream.”

CoCs can and should do better.

HUD’s guidance states that in order to qualify for allotted points, CoCs must demonstrate persons with lived experience:

  • are included and provide input that is incorporated in the local planning process;
  • review and recommend revisions to local policies addressing homelessness related to coordinated entry, services, and housing;
  • participate in CoC committees, subcommittees, or workgroups;
  • are included in decision-making processes related to addressing homelessness; and
  • are included in the development, or revision, of the local competition rating factors.

As folks who represent CoCs are applying for the NOFO, it is crucial to have focus groups and one-to-ones with people with lived experience of homelessness. This will build on the CoC’s collective thinking. As part of these efforts, it is necessary to engage in conversations where language is simplified intentionally. It is also important to prioritize safe/brave spaces to hear from the experts with lived experience.

This will help CoCs build in strategies to ensure that the partnerships allow people with lived experience to lead with their expertise and to influence the design and implementation of the processes to solve homelessness.

How CoCs Can Become More Inclusive

When building infrastructures for these conversations and practices, CoCs should utilize the leadership of lived and experience experts to lead conversations on how to improve these systems.

This opportunity to activate radical compassion is well overdue. Consider the equitable outcomes obtained by bringing people with lived experience into the conversation. Consider also the benefits of doing this in ways that cultivate practical and critical thinking skills where they are engaged in discussions powerfully — so they can speak to the topic empowered with the information needed to truly take leadership in the work.

As you begin this work, be sure to support these leaders by partnering their expertise with the budget, policy, and program directors of your agencies so that the knowledge share allows for equitable outcomes.

Prioritize a budget that shows that this leadership and expertise work is respected and highly valued through compensation and acknowledgment for their wisdom and intellect in supporting these efforts.

Fund and create a department designed by and for people with lived experience. This requires that policies and budgets are put in place to ensure their agency is being represented in the best ways possible. In turn, this will help build in structures to support the co-created collaborative efforts to design training to create meaningful partnerships at all levels of involvement, from c-suite to frontline staff.

Take Advantage of This Opportunity

This is a unique opportunity to really leverage the skills, gifts, and talent of lived experience. In doing so, we can advance racial equity and solve homelessness. We can build structures that support the healing of systemic harms, as well as our obligation to see people as people regardless of their lived experience.

And we can do this without being blindsided by the fact that there is a differentiating factor that lies in the heart of someone with lived experience of homelessness, who leads with vulnerable courage, as opposed to someone who is able to access opportunities based on their privilege — especially when we factor in the privilege of white privilege. 

Take courage as we solve homelessness together!!