Advocates for the homeless and social service groups held a forum yesterday on the connection between racism and homelessness.
Mike Foley reports.
According to estimates, African Americans make up 22 percent of Franklin County’s population. But of the families served in the county’s homeless shelters, 73 percent are African American. Columbus Urban League President and CEO Stephanie Hightower had the following reaction to those numbers.
“How the hell does that happen? How did all of us in this community allow this to happen? And so that’s a huge discrepancy even when accounting for poverty rates. It really basically is saying, and we all should be saying - there’s something wrong.”
As social service leaders try to understand the reasons for the disparity and what can be done about it, Hightower says it begins with acknowledgement that racism exists. Ohio State University Assistant Professor Jason Reece says prosperity and inequality are growing side by side.
“So since 2008, unemployment rates have gone down. We now have unemployment in our community of 4 percent. But the number of folks in poverty has not budged. In fact it’s grown larger. What does that mean? That means more people economically marginalized. That means more people struggling and living perilously on an economic razor blade where they can fall into homelessness at any moment.”
Reece says policy got us here, and policy can reverse these trends. He suggests a blunt conversation about wages to help people earn a more sustainable living.
Those who attended the forum discussed issues of racism they’ve faced or witnessed and submitted questions to a panel that included Denise Robinson – president and CEO of Alvis.
“We always say in our field that about 90 percent of everyone that goes to prison is getting out. One third of that population that is being released from Ohio is coming to our agency. Where’s the other two thirds percent going? So many folks are being released from prison without any place to go, with an $80-dollar-check in their pocket. I was looking at some of the new HUD guidelines and some of those say that you cannot discriminate against someone because of their criminal record and that’s new, especially in public housing. But what happens? They’re discriminated against, so those are the things I think we need to come together and work on eradicating that.”
The Columbus conversation stems from a project by the Massachusetts-based Center for Social Innovation. Marc Dones sums of the goal of SPARC – Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities.
“We have built in this country imaginary social program after imaginary social program where what we do is we’ll sit around a table and say how we can fix these people out there and none of those people are in the room. And then we get really surprised when nothing works and then we blame them for it not working. We’re not gonna do that. So that’s the part that I really want folks to leave here understanding about the initiative is that it really does try to center the experience and the narratives of the folks who have that lived-experience. Our team fundamentally believes that the future of social policy is in that space.”
The center is conducting research in Columbus and 9 other U.S. cities. It hopes to create a set of strategies and interventions for the communities to implement over the next year. Meanwhile, advocates in Columbus plan to continue the conversation. They encouraged the attendees to think about what they can do differently to remedy the issue of racism and homelessness.