The Toll of Being an Employee of Color in the Homeless Services System

Recently, I looked through the list of names of my former clients who died over the years. I obtained this list at last December’s local National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day vigil. It occurred to me that several of the names were Black men and women. Some were housed at the time of their death, and some were still unhoused. The longer I stared at the piece of paper that should never exist in the first place, the angrier I felt.

It infuriates me that many of these amazing souls never had the opportunity to obtain housing. Why does this keep happening? As a person of color who worked in the homeless response system, I understand too well how racism intersects with our work.

When Systemic Injustices Emerge

In my previous role as a service provider, I recall sitting through numerous coordinated entry meetings with a bunch of White folks in the room, while it was me and usually one or two other staff who identified as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). At these bi-weekly meetings, we reviewed the By-Name list, where we prioritized and made life-changing decisions on who received housing assistance.

At the top of the list were mainly White men, while a majority of the BIPOC clients were near or at the bottom of the list. These BIPOC clients were classified as “less vulnerable” through the lens of middle-class White America. I had relationships with most of the clients on the list. And I also knew that the White folks who rose to the top were far less likely to die on the streets than the Black people stuck at the bottom.

Instances like these point to how systemic issues are present in homelessness systems. Rage consumed my soul when, week after week, I had to beg the group full of White people to consider giving a Rapid Re-Housing or Permanent Supportive Housing spot to someone of color. It astonished me that I had to spend so much time and energy to advocate for a human being to obtain housing, while others – mainly White individuals – got selected without a blink of an eye. They had an advocate with a higher position than mine, whose opinions weighed much more heavily on the service providers in the room. And often times, that advocate was White. The power in that room was phenomenal: a handful of people decided who received a second chance at life or who would continue to wither away. It was hard to ignore the implications of race in these scenarios.

When Clients Said the “N” Word

Some of the clients I tried to so hard to assist threw racial slurs at me and refused to work with me because of the color of my skin. White leadership could only sympathize so much. I still had to walk past these clients every day after such hurtful interactions.

Being racist is not grounds for prohibition for someone to get their basic needs met, so these clients were constantly in the building alongside me. I had to figure out a way to keep calm and act “professional” when passing by them and not knowing if I would again be subject to racist remarks. My White coworkers would never understand the strength that took. If you are a BIPOC employee, you probably have had a similar situation happen to you. These were traumatic and deeply hurtful experiences for me working in the field.

Undoing Structural Racism

For as much good as the homeless services field does in housing people and meeting their basic needs, we need to be honest: our field perpetuates structural racism. We can’t ignore that fact. We need to do better, especially for the sake of BIPOC employees. It is hard enough not being White in this world: you walk out your front door knowing there are many people out there who hate your existence. They see you as inferior and that you do not belong here – all because of the color of your skin.

Now imagine being BIPOC and experiencing homelessness. Not only are you classified as “less than” because of race, but now face additional hurdles because of your housing status. Seeing how BIPOC clients are treated in the system is difficult to witness as a BIPOC staff member. You understand why there is so much despair in your clients’ eyes. They are facing the uphill battle of finding housing, employment, social support, mental health services and other much needed resources in a world that was created to shut them out.

White People: Time to Listen

If you are White, these experiences may come as a shock to you. Please be mindful that your BIPOC colleagues have a huge weight on their shoulders they carry daily, one that you have the privilege of avoiding. Give them the respect to voice their opinions without fear of judgment or punishment. Truly value and listen to what they have to say. Question your hiring practices and who you select to enter housing programs. After all, we are all in this together to end homelessness.

Sharing the Burden with Fellow BIPOC Service Providers

You, as a person of color, want to fight for your BIPOC clients who struggle to navigate our country’s racist institutions. That burden weighs heavy on your heart. How can you balance being a fantastic case manager, outreach worker, or shelter worker to your clients but also be an excellent employee? How can you stand up for what is right and not rock the boat? You desperately need that promotion, but worry that your White co-worker with less experience will get that job instead. It has happened too many times before. Your White colleagues do not understand the pressure of defending their race, for they have never faced racial injustice.

This pressure may wear on you. Your priority is meeting the needs of your clients in a system built to oppress them – and you – but at times you feel trapped in an endless cycle of guilt, shame, anger, resentment and hopelessness.

But it doesn’t have to always feel that way. Lifting off this pressure and caring for ourselves is central to the work of ending homelessness, especially for BIPOC service providers. Connecting with BIPOC peers, going to group and individual therapy, mindfulness classes, hobbies, staying in touch with friends and family as well as physical activity can all be ways to lift some of that trauma and stress away. All those activities saved me, and I hope they help you, too.

“If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you recognize that your liberation and mine are bound up together, we can walk together.” — Lilla Watson