I grew up Arab (enough) in a time when we lived through the demotion of our race, though we could never (and will never) truly ascend to the access whiteness affords in this country. I’ve roamed across this country with nothing but a dog, a backpack, and a thumb. I’ve lived (years) in alleyways and under bridges, barefoot and “free”. I’ve camped alongside those who fell victim to systemic racism and institutionalized white supremacy. It has been beautiful destruction and joyous agony. My journey led me to today, to a place of growth and fear and pain. And a career that allows the opportunity to shape new approaches and collectively inform our work’s evolution
These experiences have sharpened recognition.
And it has framed the way in which I approach this work.
In Austin, we have worked for the last two years to evolve the way we approach our systems from a more equitable lens, understanding that equality will never be achievable without equity as its first step. We began this exploration with the creation of a Race Equity Task Force, a work group under the structure of Austin/Travis County’s Continuum of Care way back in the before times, 2018. We recognized within this system that it is interlocked and impacted by all systems and so inevitably, the institutionalization of white supremacy has informed the outcomes of those experiencing homelessness in our community.
When all social determinants point to race as the leading factor in negative outcomes- from healthcare to education, from the criminal “justice” system to housing accessibility- there exists no question of what approach to take in interrogating our own system.
Systems are hard, right? They intertwine and “you can’t change this without first changing that” and you want so badly to impact change and it seems so impossible. Systems are big and monolithic and bureaucratic and allow us to shuffle off our own accountability. Because we forget that systems are all of those things and they are made up of people, too. And when you have to unravel a ball of yarn, you need only start with locating a thread.
You have to start somewhere.
So that’s what we did. We identified in our community, thanks to some amazing work highlighting the racial disparities in only one thread of our system (shout out to C4 and the inspiring -if not heartbreaking- report) and the diligent efforts of our own community’s data experts, that we had a place to start. So we dove into the work. How are we prioritizing folks for housing interventions? We know that not enough housing exists to meet the needs of our unsheltered community, and historically, we’ve identified vulnerability to death on the streets as our prioritization point.
Like many communities around the nation, we used the vulnerability tool called the VI-SPDAT. I’m not going to deep dive into what that is, if you want to know more about it, seriously check out the link to C4’s work above. What I will do is break it down like this- it is a tool that asks a series of questions about a person’s life, invasive and often retraumatizing, that allows community assessors to determine a person’s vulnerability score. From that score, the level of housing intervention a person gets is determined (do they need permanent support, temporary support, only diversion, etc).
There are sooooo many factors that come into play here that influence the ways in which this tool is problematic. But the biggest one (to me) is that ending homelessness does not have a one size fits all solution. Say it again please, louder for the folks in the back:
The VI-SPDAT proved, through that amazing study referenced above, to be racist. And it’s not even the tool’s fault, per se. It’s the interlocking of white supremacist institutions and the fact that if you are more likely to lack access to healthcare, education, stable housing, etc, you are more likely to face homelessness.
Like this is not a hard concept.
White supremacy is the water we swim in.
Ok, so what did that mean for us? “The effects of systemic racism mean the probability of experiencing homelessness in Travis County for a Black person is approximately SIX TIMES that of a white person.”
It also meant we needed to find a way to begin identifying how Black folks were (or weren’t) accessing services and how we could see a more equitable prioritization measure. And you know what it took? Studying our own outcomes in our own community. The reliance upon a standardized tool had to end.
And so that’s what we did.
There is a lot of talk about “engaging people with lived experience” and “engaging BIPOC” (which really, start just saying “Black, Indegenous, Latinx, and all people of color”- like folks aren’t a monolith and all have different experiences and needs, though that’s a post for a different day). But here’s the deal. That term “engaging” is too widely used and not widely enough implemented in any meaningful way. In our team, we wanted to turn this on its head.
So we did that, too.
We had on our team the seriously most diverse rooms I had ever been a part of in the Austin homeless response world. I was there, a co-chair even, a person who used to live outside and who received services in our community. There were other folks with lived experience and expertise, we had folks from the CoC, service provider orgs, the city, grass roots equity orgs, etc.
It was amazing.
Because what it meant was, the real life experiences of real life human beings were not only informing the work we were doing, but constructing a new approach. And as we evolved and our team grew, so did our scope. Because people most impacted were at the design table, and so shaped what we would create.
“The original charge of the Equity Task Group was to work toward racial equity. As the slate of members grew, so did the focus of the work, expanding to include equity for transgender and gender-nonconforming people, as well as people at the intersection of racial and gender discrimination who are most likely to experience violence and trauma.”– Austin API
And it wasn’t easy. And the work isn’t finished. But having all these voices made it possible to not just be at the table, but to build it. And when we get the opportunity to build our own tables, we see more sustainable outcomes, and we ask the right questions and we understand the answers.
And THAT is how we begin the shift of culture towards one that focuses on equitable outcomes. This tool is one thread, one part of an enormous system. And it will change how we move forward. We are truly on a precipice, one where we are at the brink of a new approach and a better outcome for those most vulnerable.
Where to go now
Please go check out the amazing work of the Austin/Travis Co Equity Task Force. This community came together recognizing a need to learn what our community needs and developed a process by which we can answer that need, walking alongside and taking leadership from those most impacted, centering equity, and taking a small step towards the unraveling of systemic impact.