Centering Racial Equity in Homeless System Design

This post is written by staff of the Oakland-Berkeley-Alameda County, California Continuum of Care (CA-502).

Between 2017 and 2019, homelessness increased by 43 percent in Alameda County, California and unsheltered homelessness grew by 63 percent. The upsurge in homelessness is plain to see throughout the county, where tents fill parks, highway underpasses and median strips, and RVs line the streets. The 2019 Point in Time Count also brought attention to racial disparities in the homeless population: Black and Native American people are homeless at a rate 4 times greater than in the general population. Despite our efforts, it was clear that current systems were not meeting the needs of people experiencing homelessness, particularly people of color.

Collective Impact

To confront the sharp increase in unsheltered homelessness and marked racial disparities, the Oakland-Berkeley-Alameda County, California Continuum of Care, EveryOne Home, worked with Abt Associates (a HUD-provided technical assistance consultancy). Together we worked to model a high performing homeless response system. The project became a nearly year-long collaborative effort first to develop a data-driven racial equity analysis and then to apply this equity lens to designing a system that can respond effectively to homelessness in our community.

The project created an opportunity for EveryOne Home to live out our collective impact mission. Collective impact describes a structured collaboration that enables stakeholders from different sectors to set a common agenda for solving a social problem. We collaborated with the Oakland Mayor’s Office and the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency to bring together people with lived expertise of homelessness, elected leaders, service providers, housing developers, local government agencies, philanthropic organizations, researchers, and other community leaders. Together, we established a shared vision for ending homelessness in Alameda County, California.

Racial Equity Impact Analysis

The system modeling process begins by looking at population and performance data to understand the needs of households experiencing homelessness. Then communities use that knowledge to envision a system that could respond fully to all households experiencing homelessness.

Overall, our system shows very high rates of people becoming homeless combined with low rates of permanent housing exits; for every 1 person who obtained permanent housing in 2019 nearly 3 people became homeless for the first time. This inflow-outflow dynamic is at the center of the 43% increase in homelessness in Alameda County between 2017 and 2019. However, the data showed that Black and Native Americans entered homelessness for the first time and returned to homelessness at higher rates than other racial and ethnic groups.

To better understand our homeless data, we looked to research and found documented connections between the racial disparities in the homeless population and structural racism. As a CoC we learned about the lasting impact of policies and practices that have excluded people of color from equal access to housing, community supports, and opportunities for economic mobility (SPARC, LAHSA, Paul et al). It became clear that we cannot end homelessness until we end homelessness for Black and Native American people. And so the success of our model hinged upon whether or not the interventions would work for Black and Native American households.

Our approach was influenced by targeted universalism, which argues that prioritizing, or targeting, the needs of those with the greatest barriers will nonetheless produce universally beneficial outcomes. In short, designing homeless interventions that work for Black and Native Americans will produce a homeless response system that works better for all.

With this knowledge, we began convening focus groups with sheltered, unsheltered, and formerly homeless people to learn about their experiences and the kinds of supports that would work for them. We convened focus groups that looked like the homeless population, with an emphasis on Black and Native American experiences of homelessness. We also sought out the stories of older adults, youth, families, formerly incarcerated people, and currently unsheltered adults.

What We Learned

Repeatedly we heard participants in the focus groups taking personal responsibility for their homelessness, using words like lazy, irresponsible, and worthless. Looking across their narratives showed structural patterns, including barriers in education, accumulated adverse health impacts, mass incarceration, and generational poverty. It became clear that when structural racism is not pinpointed as a root of homelessness for Black, Native Americans, and people of color, then homelessness is lived and represented as resulting from personal traits including addiction, poor choices, bad luck, and mental health.

From this finding we learned that as a homeless response system, we must align behind an equity narrative that is infused in every aspect of our work from direct services to executive leadership. The Racial Equity Impact Analysis combined focus group findings with our performance data disaggregated by race. Together, they pointed to ways we could transform our system to be more equitable and effective.

Centering Racial Equity in Homeless System Design

The Racial Equity Impact Analysis is the heart of our approach to infusing racial equity in homeless system design. Steps to take when integrating Racial Equity Impact Analysis into system modeling include:

  • Always disaggregate population and system performance data by race and ethnicity.
  • Identify the root causes of homelessness that underpin the over-representation of people of color—particularly Black and Native Americans.
  • Understand how aspects of the homeless system and housing market work to benefit or burden people of color.
  • Pinpoint opportunities to overcome structural and systemic barriers and develop strategies to advance racial equity within the homeless system.
  • Formulate key elements of a model homeless system through this racial equity lens, including designing new types of housing and support service programs as well as the optimal inventory and service levels.
  • Develop recommendations to more effectively and equitably allocate resources, prioritize investments, and advance proactive, targeted strategies to end homelessness.

Integrating racial equity into system modeling and resource allocation is both an innovation in homeless system planning and a fundamental requirement to ending homelessness. The final report from our Racial Equity Impact Analysis and homeless system modeling effort,  Centering Racial Equity in Homeless System Design, is now available on the EveryOne Home website. Our methods, process, and tools are included in the report for your reference and adaptation. The report provides an example of how CoCs can design solutions to the housing barriers that disproportionately impact homeless people of color, and more specifically Black and Native American people.

Moving Forward

This project represents an important first step in our Continuum of Care toward a more equitable and effective homeless system. Our work is far from done. We are turning our attention to the necessary steps toward realizing the equitable new solutions that are envisioned in Centering Racial Equity in Homeless System Design. We look forward to continuing the conversation.