‘Structural racism impacts homelessness’: Community discussion kicks off year of work tackling disparities


More than 200 people gathered this week for a presentation and panel discussion to kick off a year of work in Multnomah County examining -- and then addressing — stark racial disparities among neighbors experiencing homelessness.

An initiative called Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities, or SPARC, will shape that effort. Their work will include data analysis and training sessions, but rely intensely on focus groups and one-on-one interviews with people of color who have lived experience with homelessness.

SPARC, part of the Massachusetts-based Center for Social Innovation, has worked in communities across the country, often invited by service providers or community groups. In Multnomah County, their work is sponsored by the Joint Office of Homeless Services and A Home for Everyone, the county’s nearly 4-year-old anti-homelessness initiative.

What SPARC turns up in Multnomah County over the next year will add to findings from other communities released in a SPARC report this month.


Marc Dones, the project manager for SPARC, presented some of that work during Monday’s event, held at Revolution Hall. In communities studied by SPARC, African Americans made up 34.1 percent of people experiencing deep poverty — but 64.7 percent of people experiencing homelessness. Those disparities are even sharper for young people of color, Dones said.

“Structural racism impacts homelessness,” Dones said. “I’m going to say that again. Structural racism impacts homelessness.”

Racism matters more than poverty

“We wanted to understand what was true: whether or not poverty drives homelessness,” Dones said. “It turns out it does not. That’s a really big deal. We have told ourselves for 100 years that solving homelessness is mainly about solving poverty. That, it turns out, is probably wrong.”

In Multnomah County, the 2017 Point in Time Count found African Americans made up 16 percent of people counted as homeless, despite making up just 7 percent of the population overall and 14 percent of residents below the poverty line.


“Racism is inextricably linked to our housing crisis,” Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, a member of A Home for Everyone’s executive committee, said during the event. “Every decision we make has to put equity at its center. The solutions that address disparities are solutions that will help everybody leave the streets.”  

Dones pointed to a series of factors that could offer room for potential remedies:

  • Rent is too high for everyone on the edge.

  • Behavioral health interventions tend to be based on what’s best for white people and white culture.

  • Criminal justice disparities make it difficult for people of color to find housing and steady work.

  • And a lack of economic capital means the support networks that might sustain a white family through hardship aren’t available or are too fragile to support families of color.

Dones played part of an interview from another city that made clear how an offer to help could go wrong.

A family with kids moved in with a relative who owned a home of their own. But the utility bills and other costs associated with a larger household made it too expensive to maintain the house. So the family ended up in a shelter all the same.

“People can also pool their deficits,” Dones said. “The deficit pooling outweighs the resource pooling, so it doesn’t actually help.”


“We have a lot of work to do”

Dones’ presentation gave way to a panel discussion featuring local leaders who work to promote equity and end homelessness.

Shannon Singleton, director of housing services and outreach agency JOIN, stood as facilitator. Dones also participated as a panelist, along with Patricia Rojas, director of El Programa Hispano Católico; Koffi Dessou, director of the Portland Office of Equity and Human Rights; and Emily Nelson, equity coordinator for JOIN.

Dessou reminded the room that Oregon’s constitution, until 2002, included long-invalidated language that banned African Americans from living in the state. He also talked about the nation’s legacy of stripping land from Native Americans and giving it to white people.

“The ghost of these laws still exists. The culture we live in, in America, has been shaped by all of these laws,” he said. “It’s not done. It’s not finished. We have a lot of work to do.”

He said Portland officials are training employees on equity and are passing laws that, on their face, prohibit discrimination. But that’s not enough. He encouraged the kind of community-wide, upstream changes that Dones called for in their presentation.

“Look at the results of your work,” Dessou said. “If you still see discrimination, it still fits the description of discrimination.”

“Literally, you listen to people of color”

Rojas pushed back on one aspect of Dones’ presentation. Dones had said the data collected by SPARC didn’t tell as clear a picture for the Latinx community as it did for African Americans and Native Americans.


“We don’t know what’s happening for Latinx folks,” Dones said.

But, Rojas said, “we do know. We have a Latinx community who knows.”

She said federal definitions when tracking poverty and homelessness leave out some of the Latinx community. And people in the community sometimes shy away from services, she pointed out, because they fear becoming targets of immigration authorities.

“Why would I want to go to a shelter and expose myself to potential deportation. My friend may say, ‘That’s never happened to you,’ but it has. It’s happened to more than a million people. Why wouldn’t I think it couldn’t happen to me?”

Rojas noted the power in having government pushing to narrow disparities. But she said the deepest change would only come with pushing from the community.

“We can wish all the day long that things were different,” she said. “But they’re not. We have to make them that way.”

Nelson spoke of JOIN’s work, as an organization steeped in and largely defined by white culture, to become an anti-racist organization. That work includes rethinking the very structure of the agency, she said, and being extremely deliberate in changing policies and listening closely to clients and staffers of color.

“It’s pretty easy in a white-dominant-culture organization to be accidentally racist,” she said. “It’s pretty impossible to be accidentally anti-racist. We had to put resources intentionally into that effort.”

“Literally,” she added. “You listen to people of color and you believe what they’re telling you about their own experience.”


“Being the target of racism hurts worse”

Panelists also took questions from the room about how to sustain work to identify and remove disparities after SPARC has gone.

“What happens next will be driven by your community. We collect data and build a knowledge base. You guys have to do something about it,” Dones said. “Go back to your living rooms, your dinner reservations, and say, ‘What kinds of skills and talents can I bring to this conversation?’”

And they discussed what it means for someone to be a white advocate for equity -- and how to have a conversation like this in Portland, which is predominantly white and where sometimes even just broaching the subject can lead to defensiveness.

One obvious approach? Make sure those conversations don’t stop and start with other white people.

“For a community like this one that is very white,” Dones said, “we suspect of a lot conversations about racism happen in a room of only white people. I love you. But you don’t know what you’re talking about. You need to have folks of color in those conversations. And not just one.”

Nelson said white people need to “figure out how not to be defensive,” and that they need to “learn to listen” — otherwise they’ll make the conversation about their experiences instead of what’s happening to communities of color.


“It’s super uncomfortable and painful to think about the fact that you may be benefiting from someone else’s oppression,” she allowed. But? “Being the target of racism hurts worse.”

Dones said everyone needs to understand that racism isn’t “binary,” in that it’s possible to “be a committed anti-racist and still do some racism.”

That means everyone has to keep working — and keep listening.

“You don’t brush your teeth once, and now you’ve become a teeth-brusher,” they said. “If someone spots you after lunch and says, ‘You have some spinach in your teeth,’ you don’t say, ‘That’s impossible! I’ve already brushed my teeth!’

“When people call you out on it, it shouldn’t be this soul-crushing denunciation,” they continued. “It should be like pointing out you have some spinach in your teeth.”