Why We Must Address Racial Inequity in our Efforts to End Homelessness
“Why racial inequity?” This was not asked to me by any of our members, staff, or board. It was asked by a close friend when I told her that, to my surprise, the issue of racial inequity came up several times in my first month as leader of Funders Together to End Homelessness. The staff thought we should be talking about it and the board wanted to know what we could be doing to address it, as several of them were having conversations at their own foundations. As our members attended sessions that addressed racial inequity at the Council on Foundations and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, they wanted to know what I thought about inequity and ending homelessness.
I am a young woman of color; my personal life is riddled with prejudice, inequity, and fear I have for my husband, his son, and my brother. But the work of ending homelessness is so difficult, a friend who does work on race and justice questioned why I would want to take on another challenge within this already complicated work. She wanted to know why, in my first few months, I did not want to just “play it safe.”
Her question gave me great pause, but then I remembered why I wanted to lead Funders Together to End Homelessness in the first place. Philanthropy can fill in gaps, leverage resources, and use their voice to advocate for real change. Funders Together members want all of that and more. They come together because without systems change, we can't end homelessness as we know it. And if we don’t talk about the structural issues that cause racial inequity in housing, human services, and criminal justice, can homelessness ever be rare, brief, and one-time?
African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population, yet represent 40% of people experiencing homelessness. Even when controlling for poverty, people of color are dramatically more likely to experience homelessness. And that fact alone is why we must address racial inequity. We presented more evidence in the resources we shared at our Funders Institute in July, but the why is the fact that I might not have all the answers. We might not know all the data that explains why, but in all the systems and structures designed to prevent and end homelessness we cannot ignore the glaring evidence that people of color are disproportionately stuck in a cycle of homelessness, which is symptom of continued poverty.
But unlike the conversations around ending homelessness, in which we know Housing First, linking people quickly to housing and appropriate services, is the answer, the solution to racial inequity is not clear. And that is ok, as long as we keep in mind the following:
It is not the job of the movement to prevent and end homelessness to solve hundreds of years of racism and unconscious bias. It has become more clear that homelessness is a symptom of much bigger problems like poverty and lack of access to affordable childcare and healthcare. Likewise, the issue of racial inequity in homelessness and access to affordable housing are intersectional. Many other social change movements need to continue to address inequity to uncover solutions and effect real change. But we have to do our part to research, learn, listen, and act together to address the inequities we see in our current systems.
Having the conversation is sometimes the solution. The learning and sharing that the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers created in their Putting Racism on the Table series helped a community have a safe space to learn from academic information as well personal stories around racial inequity. This resulted in a shared understanding of how structural racism and unconscious bias impacted their personal lives as well as the social issues they sought to improve, like access to affordable housing, health care, and employment. They are still learning together and recognize that the work is long-term and that conversations can move to action by making changes internally in their organizations and advocating for systems change together.
We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Where do we start? That is the question that many ask when we start to talk about taking conversations to action. We start by learning together. We start by knowing that we have a shared vision of a more just and caring community that seeks to truly end homelessness by fundamentally changing the social constructs and systems that got us here. We rest in knowing that others in the health and criminal justice community have started doing the hard work of tackling racial inequity and we can learn from them.
In the next year and moving forward, Funders Together to End Homelessness will begin to do that work internally and create an environment where our learning can be shared with others within the movement to end homelessness and beyond. We invite you to join us as we create a safe space to identify solutions and act together as a community. This is our why.
Funders Together to End Homelessness is a national network of 200 foundations and United Ways dedicated to ending and preventing all forms of homelessness by supporting strategic, innovative, and effective solutions. Funders Together works to expand philanthropy’s impact and influence to advance the movement to prevent and end homelessness.