Kristin Aldana-Taday, Program Associate for the Foundation’s Homlessness initiative, sat down with Mark Horvath of Invisible People; Ann English, program manager for Corporation for Supportive Housing’s Speak Up!; and Vikki Vickers, one of the program’s advocates, to learn more about their partnership to share the stories of formerly homeless individuals.

In 2015 the Hilton Foundation supported Invisible People, a nonprofit organization headed by Mark Horvath to share the stories of formerly homeless individuals participating in the Corporation for Supportive Housing’s Speak Up! program. This project is designed to support formerly homeless residents of permanent supportive housing to effectively advocate for themselves and their communities at local, state, and federal levels. Mark followed the advocates as they campaigned for supportive housing in Sacramento and Washington D.C., documenting their work on Instagram, Twitter, and other social media outlets.

Our program associate, Kristin Aldana-Taday sat down with Mark, the program’s manager Ann English and Vikki Vickers, one of the program’s advocates, to learn more about the partnership.

Learn more in this video by Mark documenting the Speak Up! advocates in Washington, D.C.

Kristin: Ann and Vikki, could you share a little bit about the Speak Up program, some of the history, where it is now, and what you’re hoping for it to become?

Ann: Basically, this [program] comes out of an understanding that there is not a sufficient level of tenant engagement in the arena of ending homelessness. There are a lot of providers and industry leaders, who are working very hard, but the consumer voice has not been adequately represented and they’re the ones that have all of the expertise, so it just seemed appropriate to build some sort of program to support that.

What we wanted to do at CSH was try to develop advocates across the supportive housing industry. We thought it was a great idea to get these people together, give them some coaching, some support, some therapeutic supports, to develop their stories and find ways to get them out there into the public eye to share what their experience has been to really demonstrate what we know through data—that supportive housing works.

Kristin: That’s a great description of the program. Vikki you can tell us about the training and what that means to advocate?

Vikki: I was very shy and didn’t really want to speak at all. Saying my name was kind of difficult in the beginning. But together in a classroom with like-minded people who want to share their stories of success to help someone else, it made it a lot easier. And then there’s a coach. I have a great coach who volunteers his time and he helped me put my story together. He put me on the podium and helped me practice. Now I’m really comfortable speaking. A day with me as an advocate is knowing who I am going to speak to and what I’m able to speak about with politicians. I tell them my story and, honestly, I don’t believe I’d be alive if it wasn’t for supportive housing. And I ask them for people like me.

Kristin: Mark, what was your understanding of this program? Tell us about your process in trying to get their story and digital storytelling.

Mark: [laughing] How much time do we have?? First off, I’m the founder of Invisible People which is a nonprofit that uses digital storytelling to empower homeless people to have their own voice. So working with the Speak Up advocates was almost a perfect fit.

Me and Ann worked a little bit trying to pre-produce, but neither one of us had ever done anything like this before. [At our first meeting] they were working on an in-person presentation to speak in front of case managers from the point of view of homeless people. I immediately started using the tools that we had and what seemed to be the smartest thing at the time was Instagram – which posts 15 second videos. We started doing it with the Speak Up advocates and it really was a win-win because they had to be able to tell a story in 15 seconds and it helped them flesh out their thoughts for live speaking.

Kristin: Let me stop you there for a second and get Ann’s take on that. So here you are working with Mark. Ann, what was that like for the rest of the advocates to be thrust into this social media world?

Ann: Before Sacramento, before Mark came out, I had tried to tweet a couple of times and failed miserably. But when you get engaged in it and people respond, that’s motivating to you and you recognize that there is a way to reach more people and get your message across. This project has brought together people from different communities who weren’t formerly engaged with this population or this industry. And that’s a really powerful thing to me. I really love that about this program, because these stories speak to people.

Kristin: What would you want to add to that Mark because you’re traveling and meeting all kinds of advocates. Where do [advocates] fit into the bigger picture of what you’ve been seeing?

Mark: I really believe with all my heart that we need more advocacy, we need more education. I really believe we don’t necessarily have to hear from that research scientist, or that professor or this politician, or even the executive director. We need to hear from Vikki who has lived for four years in Santa Monica with mental illness. There’s a study by Princeton that 22 percent of the American public does not believe a homeless person has any redeeming value. That’s a big percentage that just doesn’t like them. What happens is they see a homeless person and they put it on them by saying, “Oh they’re a bum, or they’re an alcoholic, or they have a mental illness.” That might be a small part of it, but it’s a lack of affordable housing. It’s a complex issue, so by sharing the stories, it humanizes it in a way that’s going to get more support.

Kristin: Vikki, I’d love for you to speak about your experience of talking to legislators. What is going through your head and how do you get ready for that moment?

Vikki: Okay, first it’s fear. I’m always afraid I’m going to fumble my words. When we went to Washington D.C., I was so impressed with everything. I just walked in, tried to catch my breath, and remembered what I needed to say which is to tell them that supportive housing works and we need the money. I live today because of successful supportive housing. Our goal was to have them see somebody who has had the funds and it worked.

I also sat on a panel with Senator Jim Beall and Senator Holly Mitchell. This one was very important to me. We addressed the issue of the way the police approach the mentally ill homeless people. I was able to tell them my fears of the police and how I was just afraid of them at this point. Within three weeks, they changed the policy.

Ann: And now they have an ongoing workgroup that was generated because of this meeting that Vikki attended with the senators. I think one of the most powerful things about Vikki’s story [is that] Vikki is schizophrenic and identifies as schizophrenic. When they hear somebody speaking articulately and saying, “I am a schizophrenic and I’m on my medication now and I’m fine, but this is what it’s like,” people can actually see that someone who has been in a bad situation can now be a functional person who’s contributing to the community. And I think that’s just not a connection that people make.

Kristin: What other small wins and/or big wins have there been in terms of the advocates?

Ann: Oh, my gosh. They’re all big wins. I can’t really point to actual changed legislation, but what I can say is I see this exponential growth of interest. I have all of these requests on my desk for different people to speak at different organizations, in different arenas.

Kristin: I know that in previous work I’ve done that we used the phrase, “Change hearts, change minds.” It’s really person-to-person. Vikki, you’re in the thick of it. This is your story, you’re the person on the frontlines expressing your story and sharing that. What inspires you to do what you do and to be that vulnerable?

Vikki: I think the thing that really pulls me to do this as much as I possibly can is I live in downtown L.A. and every day I walk by men and women who are still homeless. I remember that feeling so deeply—just absolute hopelessness, not knowing what to do. Not being clean, that was a very big thing with me; just the smell and being so afraid. That’s what inspires me. If I can, just by telling my story somehow get even one person housed in supportive housing, I feel better and I know they’re off the street. There aren’t even words that can explain what that feels like—to be out there and have no hope at all.

Ann: Another piece of this project and I don’t want to undervalue it at all is how obviously it transforms people to do this work, because of the ability to feel effective and to feel productive. To be in a position to be heard and to potentially change hearts and minds is an incredibly empowering experience. And so the therapeutic value of doing this is also incredible. It’s a total win-win.

Kristin: What do you see next for the program?

Vikki: I don’t believe there’s any better expert on homelessness than someone who has been homeless. I hope someday that there’s a seat in the House [of Representatives] for people who were formerly homeless and are advocates. I hope that we become less ostracized by the word “homelessness” and become a real part of society where people are no longer afraid of us and realize maybe we just had something bad happen to us or we have a mental illness, and that we are a part of society and that people should care and help. There’s an individual inside each homeless person and they just need to be supported and helped to be who they truly are instead of being hopeless, and dirty, and alone on the street.

Kristin: On behalf of the Foundation, we so appreciate your candor.