A Bigger Table: Orlando Expands Youth Homelessness Conversation to Include a Key Partner
April 4, 2023
A Bigger Table: Orlando Expands Youth Homelessness Conversation to Include a Key Partner
April 4, 2023

Orlando’s team centers lived experiences to transform services and equip leaders with new approaches

By Colin Murphy, Senior Writer

The complex issue of youth who experience homelessness can seem daunting to even the most ambitious and passionate public servants. In many cities, the issue is so complicated that it can be the focus and responsibility of a single dedicated team.

When Janel Jacobs and her colleagues from the City of Orlando decided to tackle the issue of youth homelessness, they knew the table of partners needed new seats – ones for teens and young adults who were actively living and survivors of life lived on the city’s streets, in cars, in tents, and in other alternative or transient homes.

“We chose to tackle youth homelessness, and that’s a difficult conversation,” said Jacobs, who serves as the city’s Digital Innovation and Services Manager, about an issue that affects hundreds of young people every day in Florida – a state that, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, had the third-largest unhoused population in the U.S. before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Joining hundreds of cities focused on letting the community lead through programs like Love Your Block, Orlando chose to leverage their participation in the Innovation Training Program, led by the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation at Johns Hopkins University and supported by the Centre for Public Impact, to create a more diverse table tackling the issue. That included adding the voices of young people experiencing homelessness and paying them to serve as subject-matter experts. One such expert met directly with Mayor Buddy Dyer in order to share her perspective and make suggestions to the Mayor on how to increase the capacity and relevance of the city’s services.

“We brought their voices into the room,” said Jacobs. “During one of our meetings with the mayor and senior staff, we had someone with lived experience who participated in the project with us sitting right beside the mayor, so he wasn’t hearing it third-hand from us. He was hearing it directly from that person. I think that brought a lot of clarity and emotion to the conversation, and a lot of buy-in from the stakeholders.”

To more forcefully address their chosen issue of youth experiencing homelessness, Orlando mobilized a multidisciplinary team that brought together diverse backgrounds, team members and talents from within city staff. In addition to local youth who offered lived-experience insights, the team broadened the range of perspectives and ideas by including a police sergeant who led Orlando’s LGBTQ+ neighborhood relations, a chief financial officer from the Office of Business and Financial Services, a manager in the Office of Sustainability, and multiple staff from the Transportation, Community Affairs, and Housing and Community Development departments.

Lisa Portelli, Senior Advisor to Orlando Mayor for Homelessness and Social Services, praised the diversity of the group as its defining strength.

“I’ve been so impressed with what this group has done and where they’ve taken it,” said Portelli. “I came in as a subject-matter expert here and there, but it was important that the group wasn’t burdened with someone who could say, ‘This is how that’s been done’ and take away from their creativity. I think the unique component of that was, you could see city staff adding to their skills and becoming community advocates. That’s an innovative and wonderful thing to see people step forward and do that.”

In addition to their work in meetings and across departments, the collaborative team also went a step further to actively participate in research on the ground.

In early 2022, that research involved collecting primary qualitative data on youth homelessness and conducting dozens of interviews over several months to hear from and understand young people experiencing homelessness.

Michael Hess, a lifelong engineer who serves as Orlando’s Director of Sustainability, Resilience, and the Future-Ready City Initiative, has always worked on important public challenges – but he’d never engaged residents in this way.

“It’s a really simple thing to just ask someone how they feel,” said Hess, recalling the harrowing hardship stories from the group’s research and conversations with young people experiencing homelessness. “Their stories really stuck with me and our team. I think that really made a difference as we were thinking through solutions, really making sure we were leaning on those stories and what we heard from people with lived experience to think of new ways that we can really help with youth homelessness.”

Today, Orlando’s focus on listening and activating its Innovation Training learnings has not only offered a path to tackle youth homelessness and other challenges but has also helped the city and surrounding region secure $8.3 million in new federal funding to support its efforts.

Orlando’s new approach is one of many steps the City is taking to employ the equity-informed, human-centered design mindset and community engagement practices learned in Innovation Training.

“The beauty of the Innovation Training Program is that it builds the capacity of local governments to take on any challenge or opportunity,” said Justin Entzminger, Innovation Practice Director at the Center at Johns Hopkins. “From complex issues to those that cover areas of work across common government siloes, the city teams receive training and tools to break issues down to their roots and collaborate to find solutions. We focus on problem definition and doing research with rigor and integrity. From there, it’s amazing to witness what cities create.”

City leaders participating in the Innovation Training work to center their community, deeply understand challenges based on the lived experiences of their residents, and generate new ideas together. In 2022, a cohort of 13 cities in five countries with a combined population of more than 9 million completed the program, leveraging the training to address issues that range from youth homelessness to digital literacy to flexible remote working to trash management.

To learn more on how Orlando’s listening grew into a city-wide effort to address tough and growing issues, visit https://publicinnovation.jhu.edu/news.


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