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We Can’t Achieve Racial Justice Without Obtaining Housing Justice

The racial awakening that pushed institutions, lawmakers and corporations to recognize and pledge to rectify centuries of disparities that keep Black people from good-paying jobs, quality education, quality medical care and a safe and affordable place to call home has turned into the great racial snooze.

Since the murder of George Floyd, equity and inclusion have become the buzzwords to signal where people stand on everything from Juneteenth to Critical Race Theory. I see the hashtags, T-shirt slogans, window signs, and even ice cream flavors, that affirm my life as a Black person matters.

What I don’t see is the actual work to dismantle and re-create the systems that treat one group of people as less than another.

Nowhere is that work more necessary than in addressing whether someone has a safe place to live.

I work to solve homelessness in King County, home to Seattle, where Black people make up 28% of people experiencing homelessness, but only 6% of the county’s total population. Black people are forced onto the street and into shelters by disparities that begin at birth and touch every aspect of our lives, from education and income to how long we live.

Chronic stress from generational trauma and personal experiences of racial discrimination and systemic oppression accumulates over our lifetimes, with long-term detrimental effects on our health — everything from hypertension to diabetes. It literally kills us sooner than everyone else.

Across the country, the story is the same. A legacy of racist and exclusionary housing laws, zoning restrictions, high eviction rates, low-paying jobs and sky-high rents force Black — and brown — people into homelessness at astonishing rates.

So far, we’ve done little to address these disparities.

If we were actually reckoning with our past, we’d recognize the root causes that disproportionately force Black and brown people to sleep on the couches of relatives or friends, overcrowd apartments with several families at a time, huddle in emergency shelters, or live in their car or a tent on the streets.

If we were serious, we’d focus on solutions that would make things right. We know from research and years of experience that housing is a basic human need and the single best solution to get someone on a path to rebuilding their lives.

If we were committed, we would invest in more housing. We’d build, buy or convert spaces or buildings into safe places to live that our neighbors can afford to keep. We’d pass federal and local legislation that curbs the out-of-control costs that make a home out of reach for so many Americans.

Instead, for more than a year, Congress debated President Biden’s Build Back Better plan that would have built more homes and offered more rental assistance for families that need it. But that bill went nowhere and now lawmakers have taken up a budget reconciliation bill. It remains unclear if we will see more funding for housing.

We’ve also chosen to build more byzantine shelter systems and turn emergency rooms and jails into the default response to homelessness. Not because these are the right solutions. In fact, in Seattle, one year of housing for an individual with social services costs the same as three months in a county jail or three days at Harborview Medical Center’s emergency room.

Local governments are criminalizing people experiencing homelessness not because it’s effective, but because it’s easy.

I recently received a letter from a man experiencing homelessness who was arrested and jailed for having to live on the streets. He was desperate, asking for a place to live when he was released.

He dreaded returning to the streets, where he had no access to a bathroom or shower and where he barely slept because he was worried about the police arresting him or someone assaulting him.

He didn’t want to live with such indignity. But I couldn’t help him because we don’t have enough short-term shelter beds or permanent housing. In the absence of other options, he has no choice but homelessness.

But we, as a community, have a choice.

We have an opportunity born from almost three years of a pandemic that pushed so many of our neighbors to the brink and shined a light on how many people are a job loss or a medical expense away from losing their homes.

We can reimagine how to provide housing in our cities. Empty storefronts and half-empty buildings — economic effects of the pandemic — could be repurposed as more affordable places to live. Neighborhoods that historically used zoning regulations to keep people out could decide that diversity, equity and inclusion start at home. Local, state and federal regulations created the situation we are in, and the leaders looking to change those regulations are offering up real solutions — all we need now is the will to evolve.

We know that stable, safe and affordable housing breaks the cycle of generational poverty imposed on Black people by a legacy of discrimination. If we want to repair the past, then nothing is more important than the place we call home. That means we need deep investments in housing — inclusive, dignified, affordable housing — as the solution to homelessness.

Anything less would mean that our nation’s racial awareness is just talk. And brand ice cream.

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Marc Dones is the CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

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