Scaling Up Online Tools to End Homelessness

Over the last three years, virtual meetings with legislators have shifted from being an improvised necessity to a routine way of advocating on the local, state and federal levels.

Being able to engage policymakers online has been a small silver lining during the pandemic, whether it’s logging into a public comment session at the City Council or using Zoom to speak with your member of Congress. Online advocacy has created greater accessibility to the process. It’s leveled the playing field to some degree; after all, Zoom serves as an equalizer to make your case if everyone is virtual, no matter if you’re a high-powered lobbyist or a citizen advocate.

The Alliance has embraced virtual advocacy through Capitol Hill Day, our annual event that connects providers, Continuum of Care (CoC) leaders, local and state coalitions, people with lived experience, and other advocates to their elected representatives. Capitol Hill Day has been a popular part of the Alliance’s work for decades, and has traditionally been a series of in-person meetings on the third day of our July conference in Washington, D.C.

However, since the pandemic first began, the U.S. Capitol Police’s website has maintained a red banner notice announcing that the “Capitol Building and Congressional Office Buildings remain closed to the public.” While it is still possible to meet in person, the procedure that now involves staff escorts and a clearance process managed by the U.S. Capitol Police. This tightened security reflects precautions following the January 6 riot. Not surprisingly, most legislative offices prefer Zoom meetings.

And it’s worked it our favor. In September, we hosted 1,166 homeless experts to participate in 261 virtual legislative meetings. This year’s event was even bigger than last year’s event, (which included 914 advocates in 231 virtual meetings) – and the increasing reliance on virtual tools helped make it happen.

Shifting Online

Virtual meetings can’t match the quality of a face-to-face conversation, but they’ve been a boon in other ways: more people can participate, whether they’re able to travel to the Alliance’s conferences or not. It’s easier to get meetings with elected officials and their staff, given the efficiencies of scheduling Zoom meetings over in-person visits. Leaders with lived experience are also often more engaged, speaking with greater confidence from the familiar surroundings of where they live instead of the ornamental offices on Capitol Hill. These spaces are designed to be intimidating for anyone, with tufted leather sofas and walls that are crowded with awards and framed photos of dignitaries.

The essential goal of advocacy is to inform the policymaking process and champion the needs of people experiencing homelessness. Online tools make that possible at a scale that was not previously possible.

Integrating New Technologies to Improve the Field

The Alliance has also invested in online tools to help our field partners advocate more effectively. One of the Alliance’s online training resources, “How to Advocate to Your Lawmaker,” is specifically designed for virtual legislative meetings. It’s a self-paced course that tells you how to get the most out of a Zoom meeting with your Senator, Representative, and legislative staff.

But it isn’t the only online resource that communities can use to improve their homelessness response. This year, the Alliance has spent time building up the Center for Learning—an ongoing effort by the Alliance to provide quick, affordable, on-demand online training resources to the homeless response sector, advocates, and others. It’s easier now to build skills and programmatic expertise through the Center for Learning: the Alliance is committed to helping our field partners find the solutions to ending homelessness, whether online or through our resumed in-person conferences. You can check out more resources from the Center for Learning here.

Moving the Field Forward

A trip to the nation’s capital isn’t required anymore to have meaningful input in the legislative process – and all you need is a computer or phone. These online tools and the Alliance’s virtual Capitol Hill Day are adaptations to a changing world. They are resources that no doubt would have been useful before the pandemic, but they are now more essential than ever.

In his first inaugural address, Bill Clinton said: “the urgent question of our time is whether we can make change our friend and not our enemy.” COVID has brought enormous hardship and incalculable losses, especially among people experiencing homelessness. Yet as we adapt to a world that is forever altered from just a few years ago, it’s important to make the most of new opportunities that change has brought.