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Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change


Changing the Conversation

Whose Voices Do We Value? Stories of Youth Homelessness & Resiliency

03/2/16 10:25 AM | Ayala Livny | Youth, Homelessness


This post is second in a series of stories from youth about their experiences of homelessness and resiliency. Thank you to each of the authors who have so generously shared personal details of their lives for the benefit of others. We are inspired by their courage and hopes for the future. We must learn from their stories and partner with them to implement effective, meaningful solutions.

I was recently invited to moderate a panel on homelessness. When I asked who would be on the panel, the organizer listed a number of prominent names in the field. I spent a moment feeling impressed and excited about the possibility of rubbing elbows with these individuals…and then I asked if there were any people on the panel who had experienced homelessness.The organizer paused.

“No…” they said. “But, these are some of the leading researchers and most prominent voices in the conversations about homelessness.”

“Just to clarify,” I continued, “there are no people on this panel about homelessness that have actually experienced homelessness?”

The organizer paused again. “No, there are not.”

I offered to connect them to individuals with lived experience who could speak on the panel. I insisted that these speakers be compensated for their time and expertise if they agreed to participate.

Then I told the organizer I would not moderate the panel unless it included the voices of people with lived experience. I would not lead a panel where the most valuable voices were left out.

As a co-facilitator of the Leadership Development Program (LDP) for young adults who have experienced homelessness organized by the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance (MHSA), I feel strongly that people who have experienced homelessness should assume a central role in shaping policy and designing solutions. As part of the LDP program, we organized a Legislative Action Day at the MA State House to educate policy makers on the issues facing young adults who experience homelessness. In articulating why it was worthwhile to create the event, one of the program participants said, “There should be nothing about us without us.”

I aspire to carry that message forward in all of my work: there should be nothing about us without us. There should be nothing about them without them.

I hope the panel organizer will reach out and include these valuable voices in the conversation. I hope that every time we talk about these issues, people with lived experience can take the stage—not as token participants but as primary speakers with necessary expertise. And I hope that we as a community will learn to authentically, meaningfully, and sustainably include all the voices that matter.

Learn more about youth homelessness by listening in to this t3 podcast:

Listen Here

Read these posts from our series on youth homelessness and resiliency:

Andrew's story

Lauren's story

Kay's story

Max's story

M's story

Image by Lou (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Ayala Livny

Written by Ayala Livny

Ayala Livny has worked in homeless services with men, families, children, and young adults to improve health outcomes and navigate systems since 1995. She spent eleven years as the Program Manager at Youth on Fire, a drop-in center for homeless youth and young adults ages 14-24 in Cambridge, MA and now trains for the Center for Social Innovation. Her focus has been on creating safe and welcoming spaces that incorporate Harm Reduction, HIV prevention, trauma-informed care, and positive youth development practices.