Twice in the past three weeks, I’ve heard a stakeholder ask whether Real Change is becoming overly attentive to issues of racial equity and losing focus on its core mission of homelessness and poverty. In my new role as director of Programs and Equity, I’m hypersensitive about this. It feels like a false choice between racial and economic justice. Homelessness is inextricably linked to racism. Anyone can fall into homelessness, but people of color are far more vulnerable because of employment, housing and education discrimination. That same discrimination makes it much more likely that, once homeless, people of color will have a much harder time getting back into stable housing. Research has also shown that there are racial inequities in the delivery of social services due to the implicit bias of case workers, making the path out of homelessness that much more difficult for people of color.
Data from All Home leave no doubt about the racial disparities in homelessness. African-Americans are five times more likely than White people in King County to be homeless. Native-Americans are seven times more likely. People of color account for two-thirds of the homeless population in King County, despite accounting for only one-third of the overall population.
Two weeks ago, All Home convened a day-long gathering called “Ending Homelessness through Racial Equity.” Both of the workshops I attended that day started by unpacking the history of institutional racism and looked at how it has prevented people of color from accessing a home. Discriminatory practices have persisted here in Seattle. Racially restricted neighborhood covenants can still be found today in thousands of property deeds and have an impact on residential patterns, despite being ruled unconstitutional decades ago. Redlining continued here through the 1970s, even after an open housing ordinance was passed by our City Council in 1968. The segregation that follows from housing covenants and redlining leads to divestment from those neighborhoods in terms of schools, grocery stores and other infrastructure, all of which contributed to a breeding ground for economic vulnerability.
Racial disparities in homelessness do not just come from differentials in opportunities in housing, education and employment, but also from the intangible and psychological impact of the shame that comes along with being homeless. One of the workshop leaders at the All Home event, Reagan Price, related homelessness to the concept of Manifest Destiny, the 19th century belief that settlers were destined (and entitled) to expand westward. The implication being that those who could not avail themselves of opportunities must be bad and unworthy.
Homelessness breeds shame, so, Price explained, the seeds of shame have been baked into the psyche of Black and brown people in this country for centuries. To grow and become intractable, she said, shame needs secrecy, silence and judgment. These are the very functions of racism.
White Americans will go to great lengths to avoid talking about race. So it is not surprising that we would encounter some resistance as we move racial equity from the periphery of our work to the center. While it may be more comfortable to talk about our work in terms of poverty and classism, Real Change will continue to move toward, not away from, our deepening awareness that without dealing with racism, we will never end homelessness.
In 2017, with the support of Equity Consultant Regent Brown, we are committed to honing in on three primary strategies for our equity work: First, we will ensure that everyone affiliated with Real Change — staff, board, volunteers and vendors — understands the intersection between racism and homelessness. Second, we will deepen our relationships in communities of color and increase accountability as an anti-racist organization. And third, we will increasingly center race in the priorities of our newspaper, vendor program and advocacy and organizing departments.
The current reality in Seattle — unbridled economic growth due to the tech and development boom, coupled with vast increases in homelessness and the likelihood of funding cuts for the poor — promises a widening inequality that will further burden Black and brown people. It is incumbent on each and every one of us to reject the doctrine of colorblindness and to think about racial impact every time we think about poverty and homelessness.