Race Equity and Unsheltered Homelessness: What We Learned at Our Conference and Where We Go From Here

Many in the homeless services field know that most minority groups are overrepresented in the homelessness system and generally experience homelessness at higher rates than Whites. Centuries of systemic racism – e.g., government sponsored policies and practices such as Jim Crow, redlining, and racially restrictive covenants, to name a few – account for racial disparities in homelessness.  Therefore, any effort to end homelessness must involve active disruption of systems, policies, and practices that perpetuate disparities or further marginalize Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPoC). This means that homelessness systems and providers must ensure that they are not themselves perpetuating inequity by making sure that all people experiencing homelessness have positive outcomes.

We at the Alliance see our conferences as key opportunities to promote racial equity, especially since they bring large audiences together to exchange ideas, tools, and practices about ending homelessness. Although it has now been a couple of weeks since our February conference on unsheltered homelessness, I want to keep the conversation about racial equity active and highlight the work and ideas that were conveyed during some of the sessions. Hopefully, these sessions inspired the field to either start or keep working on racial equity as a strategy to end homelessness.

Here are some highlights from sessions on racial equity:

Current Federal Efforts to Support Racial Equity

This session highlighted the advancements made at the federal level to support racial equity. Most notably, for the past few years, racial equity has been a part of scoring at the federal level through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO).  The NOFO incentivizes Continuums of Care (CoCs) to analyze their homelessness systems for racial disparities in services and outcomes, and to develop action plans to address them, if found.

The panelists discussed ways to approach racial equity work:

  • CoCs should use the various tools available to look at data and understand the populations in their systems and programs. The panelists emphasized outcomes and making sure people experiencing homelessness get equitable resources at equitable rates.
  • CoCs should supplement quantitative data with qualitative data to understand how well systems or programs are performing. CoCs should make sure they are engaging with consumers and unsheltered people to improve service delivery and outcomes.
  • Lastly, presenters discussed the importance of collective impact– CoCs should engage with leaders from other systems that feed into homelessness. Let’s figure out how we can work together to reduce racial disparities and end homelessness.

Effective Strategies to Serve Native Americans and Alaska Natives

This session explored the need for organizational change in hiring practices to appropriately meet the needs for Native and/or Indigenous groups experiencing homelessness. Specifically, it called for a shift in the mindset that valuing cultural awareness is a “good to have” rather than  a “must have.” The panelists also urged the audience to extend this shift to adopt culturally appropriate interventions to address the unique challenges faced by this population.

Building Connections and Addressing Racial Trauma to Improve Services to BIPoC Experiencing Unsheltered Homelessness

Along the same lines, this workshop set out to define racial trauma and how it intersects with the trauma of experiencing homelessness. The panelists discussed culturally specific models for services that could improve client retention, longer periods of service engagement, fuller use of services, and how shared (racial/cultural) identity could have a positive impact on client outcomes.

The attributes of culturally specific models included:

  • Staff, board and leadership reflect of the community being served (both racially/culturally)
  • Organizational environment is culturally focused as identified by clients
  • Established and successful community engagement & involvement with the community served

The panelists also outlined activities that relieve the complex trauma of oppression, such as meditation/mindfulness practice and expressive arts.

Continuing the Work of Race Equity

Other workshops talked about tools like VI-SPDAT and how systems can gauge vulnerability in a more trauma informed, equitable way. Participants were encouraged to consider rewording screening questions to avoid embarrassment, better collect data, and assess needs.  Another highlight of the conference was discussing how to engage people with lived experience in a meaningful way to address racial equity. Key takeaways of including people with lived experience were that organizations become more inclusive, and organizations and providers increase the wealth of knowledge that comes with experiencing the system. Presenters underscored the need to hire people with lived experience at all levels of an organization.

More and more CoCs are doing racial equity work, and we hope that February’s conference provided even more tools and ideas: what is your community doing to address racial disparities among people experiencing homelessness? What are you struggling with? What innovations have you begun to implement?

We at the Alliance always want to hear about your work and share it with the rest of the field.  We are in this work together to end homelessness in an equitable way.  Let’s keep going!