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From the street to the boardroom: Homeless residents take back power in Bay Area

As Lee Clark drove back from work, where he’d spent the afternoon delivering meals to San Jose’s homeless residents, he pointed to a spot on a grassy embankment along the Guadalupe River.

“That’s where my tent was,” he said.

To many, Clark’s background — his history of homelessness, the time he spent in and out of jail, and his battle with addiction — would be a red flag. But increasingly, the leaders in charge of shaping how the city, county and country respond to the homelessness crisis are recognizing Clark and people like him as valuable assets.

Clark serves on Destination: Home’s Lived Experience Advisory Board, where he and 15 other homeless and formerly homeless members advise nonprofits and policymakers in the Bay Area and beyond about issues impacting the unhoused community. Advocates say the board, formed in 2018, brings fresh perspective to homeless services, which traditionally haven’t made it a priority to solicit feedback from clients.

“How can someone who has not experienced this know what I need?” asked Gabriela Gabrian, another Lived Experience Advisory Board member, who was homeless off and on for years starting when she was a teenager, but now has housing in San Jose.

It’s not just Destination: Home that’s listening to voices like Clark’s and Gabrian’s. Tipping Point Community, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, has a community advisory board involved in its homelessness work. Alameda County Health Care for the Homeless has a similar board. So does the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“We should not have any groups or panels or committees or whatever talking about homelessness that don’t include lived experience,” said Jennifer Loving, CEO of Destination: Home. “That should just be the rule.”

The Lived Experience Advisory Board, affectionately referred to as LEAB by its volunteer members, meets at least once a month (via Zoom during the pandemic) but members on the board’s executive team sometimes meet several times per week. A few members, including Clark, are paid employees of Destination: Home. Others also serve on the nonprofit’s governing board.

Most currently have some form of shelter — they may log in to the virtual meetings from their sober living halfway house or their subsidized apartment. Everyone receives $40 stipends for attending.

Inspired in part by Destination: Home’s advisory board, Tipping Point Community formed a similar group last summer and recruited seven members who have experience being unhoused. So far, the board has consulted on a new homeless housing project Tipping Point is overseeing in San Francisco, guided the distribution of grant money to other nonprofits, and advised on Tipping Point’s “All In” campaign to end homelessness.

Alameda County also is trying to get unhoused clients more involved in its health care programs, said David Modersbach, grants manager for Alameda County Healthcare for the Homeless. The program’s Community Consumer Advisory Board, made up of 11 members with experience being unhoused, is working on surveying patients about their experiences.

All of those boards are focused on bringing homeless voices to the table. In San Jose last year, the advisory board for Destination: Home conducted an extensive evaluation of the Boccardo Reception Center — Santa Clara County’s largest shelter and homeless services center. LEAB interviewed clients and staff, and even sent Gabrian in as a “secret shopper” to spend a night in the shelter.

“I was a little worried. I didn’t know what to expect,” Andrea Urton, CEO of shelter provider HomeFirst, said of waiting for the results.

But she said it ended up being an overwhelmingly positive experience. The board pointed out areas for improvement — for example, sometimes there were discrepancies in the information different staff members were giving clients. So HomeFirst hired a new coordinator, increased staff training and improved communication between employees during shift changes.

HomeFirst now wants LEAB to conduct evaluations at its other shelters. And HomeFirst, which already has a community advisory board at its Sunnyvale shelter, is working on forming one at Boccardo.

“Whenever you can incorporate the voice of the people you serve, I think you only make your services smarter, stronger and better for everyone,” Urton said. “If you’re a candymaker, why would you not want to ask a bunch of kids what they think of your candy?”

In San Jose, LEAB also is getting involved in the broader policies that affect unhoused communities. Members recently met with Mayor Sam Liccardo over Zoom and sent a letter to him and the City Council with recommendations for spending federal pandemic funding. And the board is working with community group SOMOS Mayfair on potential city and county policy changes.

This work can be powerful on a personal level. For Chad Bojorquez, who was homeless for four years before he started working for Destination: Home, his time on the street was a source of shame. He assumed it would hold him back — even from a career in homeless services — because none of the nonprofit leaders he saw had a history of homelessness. But when he got to Destination: Home, helped form the advisory board and saw other people hired with backgrounds like his, he changed his mind.

“Now I see it as an actual strength,” Bojorquez said. “I never, ever thought of it as something that we could turn into a source of power and strength collectively. So it’s been a really awesome experience for me, and I think all of us.”