Responding to Racial Inequities Within our Systems of Care

On the morning of July 12, 2016, first responders, faith leaders, elected officials, neighbors, and families were gathering in Dallas to honor the five police officers ambushed on July 7 following a peaceful downtown march centered on recent fatal police shootings of black men.  

I stood by my car in the valet lane outside the Omni Dallas Hotel surrounded by black SUVs and limousines with darkened windows. People were darting in and out with a most serious and somber attitude. I was there to pick up Lawrence Wright, a Texas author and journalist in town to cover the memorial service, attended by the president. 

Wright and I met in October 2015, in North Dakota, of all places, at a symposium focused on the turbulent 1960s. He had spent his formative years in Dallas and gave an emotional reading from one of his books and his recollection as a 16-year-old of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  During his book signing, I introduced myself as working in Dallas. He was most keen to address issues of social justice and civil rights, and was interested in my work as the CEO of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance (MDHA). I spoke of homelessness, poverty, and income disparity. 

Three days after the police shootings, I got an email from Wright wishing to take time during his trip to Dallas to tour homelessness encampments that had been capturing headlines in Texas for the past year. We went to the Coombs encampment, which sprouted from the closure of a much larger camp that spring.  As Wright sketched notes from interviews, I milled about the tents of some 80 persons. Nearly all the residents were black, an observation that Wright noted. I made note of it, again. The following week, prior to the encampment closure, I would take a photo of some of the residents to capture the profound image of black unsheltered homelessness.

In response to the police shootings, the United Way of Dallas dedicated a portion of the donations it received after the tragedy to support efforts that would address the tensions and disparities that were fracturing the community and its capacity for productive civil discourse. MDHA immediately wrote a proposal to participate in the Center for Social Innovation’s Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities (SPARC) project. The proposal was accepted, and Dallas would join with San Francisco, Tacoma, Syracuse, Columbus, and Atlanta, as the first SPARC cities.

We began with a two-day training with homelessness service providers – Racism 101 and a presentation “Hard Conversation – Racism and Homelessness.” The Center’s Jeff Olivet and Marc Dones gave us even more courage on how to speak of racism with conviction and respect, and with no fear. We created a leadership team. We conducted a half-day meeting with faith leaders from the black community.

Our initial wide-eyed optimism fell way to the stark reality of the extraordinary systemic institutional conditions that have been decades upon decades in the making, codified by public policy that, all together, would become the ingredients that created a threefold overrepresentation of black people among those experiencing homelessness in Dallas compared to the population of Dallas as a whole. Calling out these facts was our first step in SPARC. 

Our CoC added a goal in its strategic work plan to “Address Racial Disparities in Homelessness and Service Delivery.”  Some of the action items included:

  • Participate in SPARC Center for Social Innovation study on racism and homelessness
  • Report race data within all reporting
  • Conduct a survey on diversity of senior management and board membership
  • Increase diversity on the CoC Project Review and Allocations Committee
  • Include racial disparity issues within MDHA social media communications

CoCs are the stewards of homelessness data and provide a powerful platform to offer a deeper analysis of race in all CoC reporting -- from system performance measures to PITs, HICs, AHAR, and APRs. Measure it, follow it, articulate it, and add voice, observation, and even opinion in your public editorial space. Areas to examine in your CoCs efforts include:

  • Compare the homelessness rates to housing rates. If 50% of persons experiencing homelessness are black, are at least 50% of those successfully housed also black? If not, why is this so?
  • Compare the racial composition of the CEOs and senior management of your most influential and critical homelessness services providers, boards, and decision makers. Is leadership representative in terms of the racial composition of your clients? If not, why is this so? Ask yourselves what voices, lived experience, or cultural knowledge are being left out of the work and how can the leadership base be broadened.

As the facilitators of our community homelessness response systems, we must intentionally and actively respond to the history of racism within our systems of care in order to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring. To get started, CoCs can replicate these first steps that the Dallas area CoC took up.