Embracing Humanity in Our Approach to Studying Homelessness

by Claudine Sipili

As a board member of the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative (BHHI) Lived Expertise Advisory Board that played a major role in the design and implementation of the California Statewide Study of People Experiencing Homelessness, my participation on the project was deeply influenced by my personal experience of homelessness. Having faced the challenges and uncertainties associated with housing instability firsthand, I have dedicated myself to making a positive impact and working towards finding lasting solutions for those facing similar struggles.

Our board members invested time and effort in preparing for this crucial study. It was important to us that the study go beyond the standard point-in-time homeless counts conducted by cities and counties for federal funding. Instead, we aimed to delve deeper into the human aspect of homelessness and understand the systemic failures that lead individuals to fall into homelessness in the first place.

One key distinction of this study is the concerted effort to include the voices of those who have experienced homelessness. It was imperative to us that the study was conducted with the utmost dignity and respect for the participants. Guided by my own experiences, I helped train the researchers on how to approach data collection with conversational graces, making the participants feel comfortable and valued throughout the process.

The significance of this study lies in its focus on humanizing the issue of homelessness. By collecting data from 3,198 questionnaires and conducting 365 in-depth interviews, we gained a deeper understanding of the individual stories and struggles of those experiencing homelessness. These narratives were then tied back to the systemic factors and failures that contribute to homelessness, providing a holistic view of the issue.

One of the most validating findings was that 90% of participants were housed in California before becoming homeless, with 75% experiencing homelessness in the same county where they were once housed. This finding underscored the need to address local and regional factors contributing to homelessness, dispelling the misconception that homelessness is solely a result of personal choices or that those who are homeless in our state are not really Californians.

Throughout the study, the board members’ guidance helped create a safe and dignified space for survey participants to share their experiences openly. By involving individuals with lived experience, we gained deeper insights into the complexities of homelessness and were able to challenge prevalent misconceptions surrounding the issue.

It is my hope that this study will foster empathy and understanding among those who have never experienced homelessness. All too often, blame is unfairly assigned to individuals, disregarding the systemic challenges they face. By humanizing the data and showcasing the stories behind the statistics, we aim to encourage a more compassionate approach to addressing homelessness.

People who have been marginalized and deprived of basic services often feel invisible to society. Proximate leaders, those with lived expertise, have a unique ability to fully see and understand the individuals they serve. They recognize that everyone possesses unique gifts and assets, and through their intimate knowledge of their communities, they can find innovative ways to connect people and address their needs.

As a board member with lived expertise, I firmly believe that people like me can play a pivotal role in understanding the complexities of homelessness. By inviting individuals with lived expertise to the table, we can evaluate existing systems of care and work towards meaningful recommendations to improve them.

My personal journey through homelessness has driven my passion for change. I am committed to advocating, volunteering and supporting organizations that strive to end homelessness. Everyone deserves a safe and stable place to call home, and I am determined to contribute to that cause in any way I can.

From my perspective, CASPEH has been an endeavor to humanize homelessness and understand its root causes. With input from board members like myself, who have experienced homelessness firsthand, we created a safe and respectful environment for participants to share their stories. By shedding light on the human aspect of homelessness and challenging misconceptions, we hope to inspire positive change in the broader systems serving those who are unhoused. Embracing humanity in our approach is key to finding lasting solutions for homelessness and fostering a society where everyone is seen, understood and supported.

Claudine Sipili is the Northern California Board Co-Chair for the BHHI LIved Expertise Advisory Board.