What Did We Learn from the National Virtual Conference on Ending Homelessness?

Another virtual conference is over! Thank you to everyone who participated in the National Virtual Conference on Ending Homelessness, including people who presented at workshops, spoke at plenaries, asked thoughtful questions, and worked to learn new things that will help to make fewer and fewer people homeless nationwide.

Some of the most important takeaways from the conference include:

Emphasizing lived experience.

People with lived experience of homelessness served as expert panelists in several conference sessions. It’s essential to include the ideas and understanding that people with lived experience bring to the table – this is not new, but it is important to repeat. People who have been homeless participated in the conference in many different capacities, and in doing so improved the conference for everyone else. Please let us know how we can make it better.

Implementing racial equity.

People in the homeless services field are increasingly paying attention to the role of race and racism in creating homelessness. This understanding is essential to making progress. Interventions need to be culturally appropriate, as Colleen Echohawk expressed so lovingly. Ensuring affordable, decent housing for everyone will require people in the field to undo the impacts of racist policies that have denied – and continue to deny – housing to people of color.

Expanding system partnerships.

Cross-system partnerships are important now more than ever. Homelessness systems are working with housing authorities, hospitals, mayors, employers, and others to a much greater extent than prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The existence of homelessness hurts many people in a community; many across a systems can contribute to solutions.

Addressing unsheltered homelessness.

Communities are addressing homeless encampments in different ways. Some communities are criminalizing and “clearing” encampments and, in doing so, destroying people’s belongings and driving them into hiding. Other communities are thinking of encampments as fulfilling the role of shelters to provide some measure of protection, sometimes with the addition of tiny homes. Still, other communities are using available resources to move people from encampments into housing, with excellent results for those individuals – while raising the question of whether that is the right prioritization of resources.

Moving people into hotels – and into housing.

One of the hottest topics in the field right now is the question of what form of shelter is the best. The widespread use of hotels for shelters during COVID – and the enthusiastic response from many homeless people – increased the field’s (and the public’s) understanding that private, non-congregate space has obvious benefits for people in shelter.

Using data effectively.

One of the field’s great strengths is its proven ability to collect and use data effectively. This strength continues to grow. Throughout the conference, many presenters explained how they used data from other systems and coordinated with HMIS to make sure people are getting the resources they need to survive.

Planning resources strategically.

A key theme of the conference centered on how to use available federal resources for the most vulnerable people. The basic message is that the way to make the greatest reductions in homelessness with the money that’s available is to provide help to people who are homeless the longest, and have the most severe disabilities. It’s not happening everywhere, but many places have adopted this targeting with the new resources that are available.

As always, we’ll make progress on ending homelessness if people, programs and systems are strategic, effective, and efficient.

Advocating for what we need.

The best news from the conference is that there are many new resources and more on the way if we advocate with Congress and state legislatures for homeless services funds and also for larger affordable housing initiatives. Even in the midst of the Delta variant of COVID, it’s a hopeful time for the future. Thanks again to everyone who participated.