A Beginner’s Guide to Policy Advocacy
The State Index is not just meant as a resource of information for information’s sake. It is the hope of True Colors United and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty that readers can use this report as a tool to make the case for better policies in their own communities through education and advocacy. Often, achieving consensus among policy experts is only the first step to changing laws and policies to better address an issue.
Advocates must be prepared to collaborate with public officials and other influential voices in the policymaking process, engage with the media, and educate the public about the policy goals they wish to achieve. Sometimes, changing state policy can be as simple as starting a conversation with the right person in a governor’s office or a state legislature. More commonly, it can be as complicated as developing and executing a large-scale public campaign.
The Lawmaking Process
Below is a step-by-step overview of the typical state’s legislative process. States differ in the timing and length of their legislative sessions. Often legislative sessions have restrictions related to what kinds of legislation can be filed. Visit your state legislature’s website for specific information on its calendar and rules.
The Legislative Chambers
- First Committee Hearing – Amendments can be made by committee. Then the committee votes whether to send the amended bill to the full chamber.
- Full Chamber – The bill is then debated by the full chamber. Amendments can be made, then the whole chamber votes whether to pass the amended bill to the next step.
- Second Committee Hearing – Again, amendments can be made by committee. Then the committee votes whether to send the amended bill to the full chamber.
- Full Chamber – Lastly, the bill will be debated by the full (second) chamber.
Phase Two: Reconciling Different Versions Passed
- 5a. If passed by the second chamber with amendments, sent to original chamber so they can vote to accept changes.
- 5b. If passed without amendments, sent to governor. See Step Three.
- 6a. If the original chamber rejects any amendments, sent to conference committee with members of both chambers to negotiate a version all can agree with.
- 6b. If other chamber accepts amendments, sent to governor. See Step Three.
- 7a. If conference committee reaches agreement, they send the final version to both chambers for approval.
- 7b. If conference committee doesn’t reach an agreement, the bill does not become law.
- 7c. If one or both chambers doesn’t approve the final version, the bill does not become law.
- 7d. If both chambers approve, the final version is sent to the governor. See Step Three.
How to Engage in the Legislative Process
An easy way for advocates to start the conversation about their state’s role in ending youth homelessness is to initiate contact with their own state legislators. Readers might consider sending their legislators an email to introduce themselves. It’s important that this first contact includes a home address and a cell phone number or some other way for legislators to be in touch.
Sample Script: Initial Contact
Hello/Good Morning Representative or Senator _____________________
My name is _____________________ and I’m a constituent of yours. I work as a _____________________ at _____________________ (describe your role/job),and I live in _____________________ I am writing to introduce myself as a constituent, and also as _____________________ . (Feel free to add any personal details such as schools attended or connections to the community, etc.)
I’m reaching out to you to let you know I am very interested in following youth homelessness issues at the state level and plan to stay involved in the process as we move towards the legislative session this year. I’d like to be kept informed as you work on pending legislation and keep an open dialogue as various decisions are made, especially with regards to policies which may impact youth homelessness.
Making Your Voice Heard
Throughout a state’s legislative session, there are opportunities to reach out to legislators in support or in opposition to bills. Each legislator has a legislative aide whose main job is to note concerns from constituents and pass them along to the legislator. Advocates can call legislative offices to make their voices heard on either side.
This is a crucial component of any advocacy effort. Advocates often use social media and other means to distribute contact information for legislative offices that are influential in the process, alongside short scripts for phone calls or emails.
Sample Script: Weighing in During a Legislative Session
Hello, my name is _____________________ , and I’m a constituent in Rep./Sen. _____________________ ‘s district. I’m calling to ask him/her to support health care access for youth experiencing homelessness. Thank you for your time.
The legislative aide answering the phones may ask for callers’ home addresses to ensure they are constituents. Advocates can call any legislator, not just the one who represents their district. In many cases, it’s important for advocates to call legislators who don’t represent their district. That’s because their legislator may not serve on the committee that a bill will move through.
State legislatures work for the people of their state. They’re expecting these calls. When most people think of civic duty, voting comes to mind. Some may also think of paying taxes and attending jury duty. But one of the most impactful civic duties is the duty to hold government accountable. We hope that readers will take advantage of their rights as community members to get involved in the legislative process.
Other Strategies to Consider
Coalitions and Partnerships
Odds are there are a number of people and organizations already working toward systems change for youth experiencing homelessness, among others, in most states.
Beginner advocates should reach out to organizations working on legislative reforms for children and youth to find out if there are opportunities for partnership or volunteering. Organizations that are focused on reforms to the juvenile justice and foster care systems, as well as organizations which serve people experiencing homelessness of all ages, are good places to start. Those who want to prioritize advancing policies that are focused on supporting students experiencing homelessness should consider outreach to teachers unions and professional associations for educators and school administrators.
If healthcare is the priority, associations representing health care providers, such as physicians, nurses, school nurses, and community health care centers, might be stakeholders worth initiating a conversation with. One of the strengths of partnering with these kinds of associations is that they typically will already have a robust presence in state government affairs, and they are often open to including new ideas in their legislative agendas.
The more people who are aware of a problem in their community, the more likely action will be taken to address it. Consider whether there are opportunities to partner with the press to get the word out about youth homelessness. The release of this State Index is one such opportunity. By sharing your state scorecard with members of the press, you may be able to spark a community conversation about the issue of youth homelessness, leading to greater