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Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change


Changing the Conversation

Racism & Homelessness: Justice is Not Something You Pray For. It’s Something You Implement.

07/27/17 01:58 PM | Jeff Olivet & Marc Dones | Social Justice, Race, Homelessness

These remarks were delivered by Marc Dones [MD] and Jeff Olivet [JO] of the Center for Social Innovation at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Washington, DC on July 18, 2017 in response to U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s address.

MD: Data drives specific and appropriate responses. And our national understanding of homelessness has been missing a critical dimension. There is a blind spot in our collective analysis, and therefore in our collective response. Our local and national strategies to end homelessness have not acknowledged the racial realities of homelessness—that structural racism is a major driver of homelessness. [Read more about "Fixing the Structural Causes of Homelessness."]

JO: The vast majority of people experiencing homelessness—more than 60 percent—are people of color. African Americans are three times more likely than whites to become homeless, and Native Americans are twice as likely. Furthermore, people of color face ongoing discrimination in housing, employment, education, health care, and criminal justice—all of which conspire to make it much more difficult for them to exit homelessness than it is for their white counterparts. [Learn more.] Attempting to address homelessness without acknowledging these realities is not to address homelessness at all.

MD: Over the last year, we have been fortunate enough to partner with six communities across the country to begin to understand the real drivers of racial disproportionality in homelessness. Through the SPARC initiative (Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities), we are constructing real solutions and developing a deeper understanding of the problem. To accomplish this, we have collected 148 oral histories from people of color experiencing homelessness. Using these qualitative data—paired with quantitative data from HMIS, public housing authorities, and the US Census Bureau—SPARC communities have begun to understand and respond to the facts of homelessness.

Through this work, three key strategies have emerged to address the intersection of racism and homelessness:

  1. Addressing racial inequity in evictions.
  2. Creating opportunities for economic mobility.
  3. Ensuring diversity at all levels of organizations and systems.

JO: First, people of color are disproportionately impacted by evictions. Evictions not only drive first time homelessness, but also cause people who have exited homelessness to become homeless again. To prevent evictions, flexible funds are required so that people can pay rent arrears, utility shutoffs, vehicle repairs, and other unforeseen expenses that become a chain of events often culminating in homelessness.

MD: Second, we must work together to create opportunities for economic mobility for communities of color. Economic mobility does not mean a new jobs program or a summer internship. It means investing in neighborhoods that have been devastated by systematic disinvestment and a century of exclusion from home ownership, which has resulted in lost potential for the kind of wealth accumulation that has benefited people who live in white, suburban neighborhoods. It means creating opportunities for long-term career pathways and jobs with livable wages. This work is ambitious and will require work across many systems. We can focus our attention on workforce development efforts that move beyond entry-level jobs that don’t pay well to training for careers. Examples of vocational training for the 21st century include code academies, software engineering, and UI/UX design.

JO: Third, our organizations should reflect the diversity of the people we serve. And it is not ok if staff on the first floor is black and brown, while upstairs the leadership and people around the board table are white. We need to grow a new generation of leaders of color by prioritizing approaches that account for institutional racism in hiring and promoting staff. White leaders must be willing to step back, let go, and focus on succession. Our organizations will be better prepared to address racial inequity if the people making decisions reflect their communities.

MD: Before his death in 2014, Vincent Harding—speechwriter for the late Dr. King—posed a challenging question: Is America possible? The answer to that question hinges on whether we have the courage to look with clear eyes at seemingly insurmountable problems, then work together to overcome them. Racial injustice in America is no accident. Nor is it an accident that so many people of color are homeless. We face two critical questions.

  1. Can we stop pretending that race isn’t an issue?
  2. Do we have the courage to tackle it together?

Justice is not something you pray for. It is something you implement.

JO: The fact that people of color are so dramatically overrepresented in the homelessness system is a collective failure. It’s on all of us. If we are to begin fixing it, then the solutions are on all of us as well.


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Jeff Olivet & Marc Dones

Written by Jeff Olivet & Marc Dones

Jeff Olivet is the CEO at the Center for Social Innovation (C4). Marc Dones is C4's Associate Director of Equity Initiatives. They lead the SPARC (Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities ) initiative.