It is hardly news that there is racial disparity in homelessness. According to recent statistics from King County’s All Home, African Americans are five times more likely than Caucasians to be homeless. Native Americans are seven times more likely. At Real Change, about half of our vendors are people of color, even though people of color represent less than one third of Seattle’s population. Almost a quarter of our vendors identify as African American, despite the fact that Black people represent only 7 percent of Seattleites.
When people refer to racial disparities in homelessness, they tend to talk about the “disproportionate impact” on people of color. It is critical to understand that homelessness is not just a neutral condition that happens disproportionately to people of color, but that institutional racism is a cause of homelessness. Labor markets that discriminate against people of color lead to much lower median income for Black and brown people and higher unemployment rates. Housing discrimination persists in more subtle forms and makes it difficult for nonwhites to access stable housing.
Predatory lending institutions drain resources out of communities of color and burden them with risky subprime loans. The criminal justice system, from the police to the prisons, has targeted Black and brown people whose prospects for secure housing upon release are greatly diminished.
All of this, and more, create extreme economic vulnerability for people of color. Really, the only thing surprising about the racial disparities in homelessness is that they aren’t greater.
Two years ago, Real Change added racial justice to its mission statement. This decision came out of a growing understanding that homelessness is about race and racism as much as it is about class and poverty. In the two years since making racial equity part of our mission, we’ve made some important changes.
We have made racial diversity a priority in staff, board and volunteer recruiting. We have increased our coverage of issues of race and racism in our paper and have striven to diversify our writers. And, we have, when possible, provided staff and board with access to training that increases our effectiveness in adopting a racial equity lens in our work to combat homelessness.
Our initial efforts have been earnest and significant; and, at the same time, we recognize that we have a long way to go if we are to be maximally effective and accountable in our work for racial equity. In the coming year, we want to prioritize this work through additional investments of time, money and other resources.
We will make sure that every staff member and every board member receives baseline training that deepens their understanding of the intersection of race and class. We will invest in leadership development opportunities for our vendors and focus on increasing the racial diversity of our own leadership team. We will partner with other organizations doing work on racial equity, cosponsor events and do more extensive outreach in communities of color when we are looking to fill staff, board and volunteer positions. We will budget for child care and transportation at events, removing barriers to participation that often impact low-income families of color. We will fund internships for low income, people of color, rather than relying exclusively on middle class, mostly white, college graduates.
Each year, our budget is based on the costs of running our core programs: the newspaper, our advocacy work and our vendor program. Too often, we end up shoehorning our work around race and class equity into our existing budget. To make bigger strides, we need to invest in this work just like we do our other core programs. And so we appeal to you, our readers, to help us do that. Individual donors make up the majority of our funding and therefore you have a substantial impact on the scope of what we can do in any given year.
Your gift to Real Change during our annual Spring Fund Drive is an important investment in our vision of creating a just, caring and inclusive community where people are no longer marginalized by racism and classism and have the means to live with dignity.