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Reflections on the Housing and Homelessness Equity and Justice Community Conversation

To promote better understanding of the impact racism has on our lives and to engage our community in that discussion, YWCA St. Paul launched a series of Equity and Justice Community Conversations, each focused on a specific topic reflecting the serious consequences of racism. We hope these discussions set the groundwork for open dialog, creating a unique community forum for sharing, learning, activism and reform. Our goal is to inspire participants to become catalysts for change.

This series enables us to open the door on what can be difficult conversations – allowing us to source real-life solutions and provide community members with tangible ways they can contribute to change.

Our first conversation focused on homelessness and housing, and how systemic racism has contributed to current challenges. We were fortunate to have Dr. Yohuru Williams, Distinguished University Chair, Professor and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas and YWCA St. Paul Board Member, provide historical context to the homelessness problem as well as share important data points illustrating this very complex issue. The recent Minnesota Homeless Study conducted by Wilder Research reveals that 10,233 Minnesotans were counted as ‘experiencing homelessness’ in 2018 (11,371 if you include American Indians), but Wilder estimates that actually 19,600 people in Minnesota experience homelessness on any given night. Minority groups make up a disproportionate share of the homeless population. The study was conducted prior to COVID-19, which has caused health and employment challenges that we expect will have a profound effect on housing stability for many more Minnesotans.

What’s driving these numbers? Dr. Williams shared that a growing shortage of affordable housing, unemployment and poverty are pushing homelessness numbers in Minnesota and that without significant investment in measures to address these issues, they become exacerbated.

Dr. Williams also discussed how Covid-19 has introduced a new set of challenges.  People of color have suffered an exponentially higher number of cases and many lack access to affordable healthcare. The growth of homelessness is also compounded by the number of people losing their jobs and facing eviction.

Dr. Williams shared the history of housing discrimination in the Twin Cities, such as decades of racially restrictive covenants and bank (and federal government) redlining that prevented generations of people of color, particularly African Americans, from building wealth by owning homes. Limited housing options also negatively affected job and educational opportunities for many people of color.

With that background as a foundation for conversation, attendees then broke into smaller groups for virtual conversations to discuss community views and understanding of homelessness, while also introducing possible solutions to homelessness and housing disparities by applying an equity lens.  By bringing smaller groups together in virtual break-out rooms, community members could share experiences, as well as source for real-world solutions.

What emerged from the small group discussions was a general desire by attendees to learn how THEY could help. That interest is important because civic engagement is essential to solving an issue as challenging as homelessness.

  • Ideas for getting involved that were sourced included: Attend community meetings.
  • Fight to dispel prevalent myths about homelessness and housing, like:
    • Homelessness is a permanent problem—we will never solve it.
    • Homelessness is not a housing problem, it’s only a jobs problem – and homeless people simply don’t want to work.
    • All homeless people are mentally ill or addicts.
    • Housing assistance causes more families to enter homeless shelters.
  • Challenge developers and apartment building owners to incorporate affordable housing options.
  • Join the fight to increase the minimum wage – minimum wage, living wage and thriving wages have direct consequences on overall financial stability.

Another way individuals can help is to support nonprofits that are addressing the issue of housing stability. At  YWCA St. Paul we tackle homelessness in our community, providing supportive housing programs and resources for families and individuals experiencing homelessness. We own and operate safe, affordable housing units for families, and work with community landlords to secure stable housing for families, individuals and young women exiting foster care. The range of housing programs we offer combines affordable housing with customized support services to help participants stabilize their lives, build new skills, connect to community and secure a future of safe, stable housing. This work would not be possible without the support of our community.

We will continue to provide space for challenging conversations that have the power to drive change through our monthly Equity and Justice Community Conversations.  Please join us on September 16 when we discuss voting, voter suppression and activism, and source ideas for encouraging turnout in this year’s elections.

Thank you for your support!