Initiative Sparks Change in Local Organizations’ Approach to Racial Equity in Work to End Homelessness
Since 2014, Syracuse has had many reports published on our staggering racial segregation and poverty (see here, here, here, and here just to name a few). These publications highlight what many in Syracuse already know, that issues related to racial segregation were exacerbated by the erection of Interstate 81, which bifurcates the city, essentially segregating the predominately Black neighborhood from the predominately White neighborhoods and areas of opportunity. “White flight” to the suburbs as a result of the construction further compounded segregation.
As members of the community were beginning to confront these issues, Dan Sieburg, our Continuum of Care (CoC) Board Chair and CEO of the Rescue Mission Alliance, participated in a workshop hosted by Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities (SPARC) called “Racism and Homelessness” at the National Alliance to End Homelessness Conference in 2016. SPARC was looking to select ten cities to study. Dan offered Syracuse as a potential selection in light of deep-rooted problems with segregation and poverty.
Once selected, we held an event in March 2017 with SPARC and invited Isaac Rivers, a person of color with lived experiences of homelessness and incarceration, to speak. As a social worker and someone who has had years of cultural competency training, I was struck by Isaac’s experience. He said that one barrier was not seeing anyone like himself working at the various agencies in place to assist him. “I would walk in and feel uncomfortable … feel judged,” he recalled. “I would give them just enough information to get by, but that’s what kept me stuck.”
This lack of ability to build trust with caseworkers who were trained to help people get out of homelessness was really hard to hear. Until I realized that the majority of those caseworkers and other staff (including management) were not people of color. According to our Annual Homeless Assessment Report, in 2017, 62% of families and 53% of individuals experiencing homelessness in Syracuse were people of color. Our staff was not reflective of the majority of the people we were serving, and we weren’t paying attention to this disproportionate data.
Similarly, the Street Outreach Committee within our CoC includes street outreach providers, shelter directors, local mental health and substance abuse providers, police, the local Downtown Committee, and many others. I look around the room at this meeting—and at other meetings where we review a list of people, by name, who are experiencing homelessness—and the vast majority of the people around the table making decisions about how to best and most creatively engage people who are unwilling to trust them are white, and often without lived experience. Not once have I or anyone else said, “The majority of our clients are African American. Do you think it would be best to have someone who is African American at the decision-making table to inform our strategies?”
The lessons we have learned through SPARC have ushered in significant changes in the way we approach service delivery and decision-making, ensuring that it is overall more reflective of the population we intend to serve. One example of a SPARC structural change objective that our city agreed to focus on is the implementation of trauma-informed care and anti-racism at the policy and practice levels, recognizing that generational trauma from racism is real and unlike other forms of trauma. As a result, we are currently working on ensuring our front-line staff receive training on trauma-informed care with an anti-racism focus. This has proven particularly important for our local Onondaga County Department of Social Services staff, who interact with people who are at risk of experiencing homelessness. We believe this training could help us prevent people from entering homelessness in the first place.
Many local human services groups that may not necessarily serve people experiencing homelessness are now “honed in” on anti-racism work due to SPARC and the attention surrounding segregation in our city. We are working with these groups to raise the percentages of people of color who work in human services as well as homelessness services. If the majority of the people who are experiencing homelessness are people of color, then it makes sense to have meetings regarding policy decisions about homelessness proportionately include people of color.
We will continue to work on these structural change objectives to improve the experiences of people of color in our homelessness services system. We are deeply committed to ending segregation, as well as ending homelessness in our city, and working as a community on this effort.