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Racial equity is key to helping homeless during the pandemic

The Department of Housing and Urban Development and leading national experts have said racial equity should be at the center of homeless responses during the COVID-19 pandemic — a recognition that people of color are disproportionately affected by both homelessness and the coronavirus. Here’s a look at the issues.

What is racial equity? 

Racial equity is not the same as racial equality. HUD addressed this distinction in June when it issued guidance to nonprofits working with homeless populations during the pandemic. Equality means treating everyone the same and ensuring they have access to the same opportunities. But with historic and structural racism, equal access doesn’t always mean equal results. Only equity addresses those differences.

Taking a racially equitable approach to homelessness may result in an unequal distribution of resources, HUD said. But the goal of such strategic investment is to ensure that racial or ethnic identity no longer serves as a predictor of housing, economic and health outcomes.

Centuries of structural racism have denied people of color equal access to housing, community supports and economic opportunities, according to a 2018 report by the Center for Social Innovation, now called C4 Innovations, a consulting group that provides assistance and training to support marginalized communities. Black and Indigenous people, in particular, have been systematically excluded from homeownership — the biggest driver of generational wealth in this country — and overrepresented in the criminal justice system, which can block access to economic opportunity for a lifetime.

Why is racial equity important in homeless responses?

HUD’s 2019 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report found that 52% of homeless people were Black, Indigenous or people of color, despite those groups comprising just 23% of the U.S. population. People of color are also more at risk of contracting and dying from the coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Blacks, Hispanics and Indigenous people are about four times more likely to be hospitalized with, and nearly three times more likely to die from, COVID-19. That’s why national leaders have urged communities to use at least some of the $4 billion in homeless aid that Congress allocated to advance racial equity even as they protect their homeless populations during the pandemic.

“It isn’t that folks with disabilities or Black folks or Native folks or whatever are somehow more prone to homelessness, it is that systems make us homeless,” said Marc Dones, executive director of the National Innovation Service, a consulting group focused on racial equity and housing justice.

How is racial equity achieved?

Inclusion is a necessary first step, according to the HUD guidelines. Communities need to engage people most impacted by disparate outcomes and include people of color in teams making homeless funding decisions, designing policy guidelines, and developing rehousing and prioritization protocols.

Holly Henning is residential director of emergency shelter at Ain Dah Yung Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, which serves Native American youth who, one study showed, are at twice the risk of homelessness. She said having Native Americans on her staff allows her organization to understand and better address needs. For example, she said, one young person was evicted from a mainstream Minneapolis shelter for burning sage as part of a Native American ritual. Shelter staff mistook that for the youth setting a fire or smoking marijuana.

The HUD guidance also advised homeless service providers to study their data to identify which demographics face the most disparate outcomes in their communities, from who is entering homelessness to who is successfully moving into permanent housing. Providers can then start to figure out why those disparities are occurring and come up with strategies to address them, HUD said.

In Washington, the city of Tacoma announced that 45% of rental assistance they were providing would go to Black and Indigenous people at risk of losing their homes. Erica Azcueta, the emergency solutions grants manager and a member of the homeless planning body’s board, said this was just one concrete example of them following the data.

“We must recognize that approaching homelessness through a racial equity lens is not playing favorites; it is responding to the data,” Dones and colleague Jeff Olivet said in a 2017 post for the website of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which coordinates the federal government’s response to homelessness.

What are the obstacles to success?

Experts say implementing racial equity into a homelessness response is not easy.

“There is not one thing that will undo over 400 years of systemic oppression,” said Amanda Andere, chief executive of Funders Together to End Homelessness, a network of philanthropists committed to racial equity.

However, culturally relevant measures of success would help, workers in the field say.

Henning said the services that Ain Dah Yung offers don’t always fit what the federal government is willing to fund or the outcomes the government is seeking.

“They might have us pull reports that show, like, how many youth were served and how long they were housed,” said Henning. But the government reports might not allow the group to reflect how it was able to help youth learn their native name or other culturally significant markers, such as the fact “that they were like re-enrolled in their tribe.”

Smaller, racially or culturally specific groups also struggle with the amount of paperwork required of federal grants. Unlike mainstream organizations that may have grant specialists, leaders of smaller groups often must be jacks-of-all-trades.

What does the future hold under a Biden administration?

Unlike the Trump administration, which issued an executive order banning racial sensitivity training in government or among federal grant recipients, the incoming Biden-Harris administration has outlined a series of racial equity goals on its transition website.

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President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have committed their administration to “removing barriers to participation in our economy, expanding access to opportunity, and fully enforcing the policies and laws that we already have on the books.”

Dones said housing justice will not be reached just because of a Biden-Harris administration, but it is a step in the right direction.

“Urgency is still needed,” Dones said. “We still have to be doing this work if we want to get to a country that we actually want to live in.”

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Agya K. Aning/The Howard Center

Mino Oski Ain Dah Yung, meaning “good new home” in the Ojibwe language, is pictured in St. Paul, Minn. on Nov. 6. The facility offers permanent supportive housing to American Indians, who are overrepresented among the homeless population in Minnesota.