Lived Experience Examined

Encampment in U District Park, 2021, photo credit: Josephine Ensign

The lived experience, the direct and unintentional (as in not stunt journalism) experience of homelessness, is increasingly used and prioritized in policy and program realms. While much of this is good, I think it needs to be examined more closely.

As someone with the lived experience of homelessness when I was a young adult in my then hometown of Richmond, Virginia, it is a concept that I wrestle with. What counts as lived experience, who decides what counts, and is lived experience something that automatically turns people into, as referred to by Pathway UK, experts by experience?

I find it encouraging that there is a growing understanding of the importance of people with the lived experience of homelessness needing to be included in real, not token, ways for more effective program planning and policy-making. An example of this locally is Marc Dones, a Black non-binary person with the lived experience of homelessness and mental illness (bipolar disorder), who was named the first director of the King County Homelessness Regional Authority. This week Marc announced that he is leaving his position. People with the lived experience of homelessness have long been employed as outreach workers, but not many have become leaders like Marc and Derrick Belgarde, an Indigenous man, and CEO of the Chief Seattle Club. Representation and visibility matter. They matter in terms of informing better programs and policies. They matter in terms of countering negative stereotyping and social exclusionary practices of people experiencing, or having experienced, homelessness.

A recurring issue in terms of people with the lived experience of homelessness working in some aspect of homelessness, especially in direct service work, is the danger of being retriggered, relapsing if clean and sober, not maintaining professional boundaries, and burning out. In trauma work, there is the phenomenon of trauma mastery, of a person being drawn to working with people in difficult situations similar to those they experienced and felt powerless to control. In trauma mastery, people, frequently unconsciously, return to sites of trauma wanting to ‘do it right’ this time, to have control and mastery of the situation. Too often, this sets people up for unreasonable expectations of themselves, co-workers, and their clients. As Jenn Adams, who works with vehicle residency outreach programs, told me, it takes years of support and even therapy to gain perspective on one’s own experience of homelessness. She points to mentors and work supervisors who check in with her, identify possible triggering situations, and help her maintain healthy boundaries in her direct service work.

In my discussion with Derrick Belgarde about the increased focus on people with the lived experience of homelessness, he said, “I’m a firm believer that lived experience should always lead in any field…The best ones are ones who can actually relate.” He followed this by talking about the fact that there is a spectrum of different types of homelessness that people experience. He says of these experiences, “They’re all traumatic and horrible and awful, but they’re all totally different, and I’m only an expert in one.” He added, “There needs to be more diversity in these decision-makings because they don’t think about that. I see a lot of the lived experience movement making grounds in homelessness work today, but a lot of them, I don’t think, come from the type of homelessness we’re trying to solve in the downtown core.”

The 2022 National Health Care for the Homeless Conference and Policy Symposium, billed as being held in Seattle and in-person for the first time since the pandemic, was held in the swanky Hyatt Regency Bellevue near a high-end shopping center at the beginning of May. The venue was ironic given the fact that Bellevue officials work hard, mainly through more aggressive policing and criminalization of homelessness, to keep the city sanitized, especially compared with Seattle.

I attended the conference and spoke with David Peery, a Miami, Florida, Black lawyer with the lived experience of homelessness during the Great Recession. David is the current co-chair of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council’s National Consumer Advisory Board (NCAB). I asked him if the NCAB folks have conversations about what ‘counts’ as someone with the lived experience of homelessness. He said that they follow a guideline of recent experience of homelessness within the last five years or longer ago if the person has stayed involved in direct homeless service provision, like being a peer outreach worker or in policy and advocacy work on homelessness. “A lot of times people who were homeless become judgmental about currently homeless people–unless they understand trauma-informed care,” he explained.

So while the lived experience of homelessness in homeless policy-making and programming is important, it should be more carefully examined and understood.

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