Reflecting on the link between racism and homelessness

Reflecting on the link between racism and homelessness

While we reflect on the experiences of our guests and staff every day, Black History Month, in particular, calls us to elevate how race impacts our work at Miriam’s Kitchen. The following discussion between our CEO, Scott, and Racial Equity Co-chair, Brittney, will give you insight into our work around racial equity and ending homelessness.

We hope that by sharing this conversation, we can continue a meaningful dialogue that builds a stronger and more equitable community for us all.

What is the link between racism and homelessness?

Scott: When any person—man, woman, child, elderly, veteran—does not have a safe place to sleep, then we have failed as a society. However, it cannot be ignored that most people experiencing homelessness nationwide, and in DC specifically, are African-American. This is the result of centuries of structural oppression and then decades of racist policies that have prevented people of color from accumulating wealth, buying a home, and accessing quality education and fair paying jobs. Thus, it is not a coincidence that 51% of the guests in our dining room are African American and 80% of guests are people of color.

Why is Miriam’s Kitchen talking about race?

Brittney: It’s simple: We are talking about race at MK because it matters. It matters that the lived experiences of our staff and guests of color be elevated and affirmed. It matters that our white staff understand how interpersonal and structural racism also affects them, and that we can work to create an equitable reality. It also matters to our mission.

Research shows that race is a predictive factor of health, education, wealth, and—wait for it—housing outcomes. DC in particular has a long history of racist policy-making and practices that have displaced and robbed black and non-black people of color. Our mission to end chronic homelessness demands that we become intimately engaged with its root causes. This is clear: Structural racism is a root cause of chronic homelessness. In addition to connecting our guests to housing, we have to interrupt the racially unjust systems that funnel people into homelessness, dismantle the policies that keep them homeless, and create sustainable change so that people don’t fall back into homelessness.

What is Miriam’s Kitchen doing to promote racial equity?

Scott: Over the past few years, our staff-led, interdepartmental Racial Equity Working Group has been spearheading our work on racial equity. They have led our staff and leadership on a journey to acknowledge and examine our bias and privilege, to think about the way we offer services and make decisions, and challenge ourselves to see what racial equity looks like at an organizational level. The work has been hard and messy, but I commend the group in stewarding this mission-critical work.

With the support of the Consumer Health Foundation, we completed a racial equity impact assessment of our advocacy work and we are in the process of completing an organizational Racial Equity Self-Assessment to understand which of our policies, practices and beliefs promote racial equity, which perpetuate systemic racism or racial bias, and how we might fix them. We also recently launched a 6-month implicit bias project, in consultation with Dushaw Hockett of SPACES to examine and reduce bias between and among staff and guests.

Through our advocacy work, we push for more resources to house people faster across the city, and we chip away at systems that make it harder for our guests to exit homelessness.

What’s next?

Brittney: The shift toward applying a racially-equitable lens to our work is ongoing. We are still learning, but we are committed to challenging internal and external systems that predispose specific populations to homelessness and then make it harder for them to exit homelessness. The Racial Equity Working Group continues to lead the development of department-specific toolkits to help frame what racial equity looks like across the organization. Other ongoing projects we are proud of include our Anti-Oppression Reading Groups where staff learn together about problematic systems, our Racial Affinity/Caucus groups that offer safer spaces for staff to process topics related to race, and our team of folks working on HR, on-boarding, and staff support through a racially-equitable lens.

Feel free to check back in with us, ask us questions, and share resources. We look forward to being in communication with others interested in and doing this work.

In Justice,

Scott Schenkelberg
President & CEO

Brittney Washington
Senior Art Therapist
Co-Lead, Racial Equity Working Group