In case you missed Project Homeless’ online panel on racism and homelessness Tuesday, we’ve put together five memorable moments from the conversation.
Panelists — LaMont Green, co-chair of the Lived Experience Coalition; Michelle Merriweather, president & CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle; Derrick Belgrade, deputy director of Chief Seattle Club; and Marc Dones, executive director of National Innovation Service — offered their personal and professional perspectives on how racist policies and systemic inequities have contributed to Seattle and King County’s present day homelessness crisis.
And while nothing can replace the full conversation (you can watch it above or find it on The Seattle Times Facebook page), here are some of the highlights:
‘There is no homelessness in America without racism‘
Question: What role has systemic racism, or racist policy, played historically in bringing us to the moment we are now with the homelessness crisis?
Marc Dones: “To be blunt, there is no homelessness in America without racism. It simply wouldn’t exist. … So when we talk about racist policy, we are talking about a nation that has its literal original fabric in the genocide of one people and the enslavement of another. You can’t move forward until you own that.
“So, when Black folks were emancipated, we were still not allowed to hold property. And the systems that locked us out of property continued until really 1970. … And so when we look at the fact that institutional redlining didn’t end until the Fair Housing Act which was in the late ’60s. …
“Property and land ownership is the principal method of wealth accumulation in this country. We consider property to be tantamount with wealth on almost every access, so when we lock whole groups of people out of property, out of the acquisition of property, we create poverty and we create homelessness.”
Government policies under the guise of helping have caused a lot of harm
Question: How is the history of Native people being systematically denied wealth generation reflected in the lives of Indigenous people in Seattle today?
Derrick Belgarde: “One of the things that led to a lot of the urban Native homelessness situation is a bad government policy of the ‘50s called The Relocation Act, where it was promised that they were going to take Natives from impoverished reservations, hook them up in urban centers with jobs, give them jobs skills, give them a house to live in, all those things, so they could get some upward mobility.
“They were failed policies. There was no intention of actually seeing that stuff through. So these families fell into poverty. We still serve some families that have never really gotten their feet on the ground because of that here in Seattle. One of the biggest populations we serve in Seattle, Washington, here is the Blackfeet tribe from Montana and that was largely because of The Relocation Act.”
‘Solutions’ can be unconsciously exploitative
Question: How does racism persist in some “solutions” to homelessness?
LaMont Green: “The white savior complex is a centuries old belief that it is the ‘white man’s burden to bring all the colored peoples of the world into civilization through colonization.’ Today we see that showing up when white individuals engage in work to help disenfranchised communities of color in ways that do not acknowledge systemic oppression and systemic racism.
“When white saviors come together to form organizations and hire people like them we see mass unconscious exploitation of Black, brown and Native communities, where mostly white-led organizations with mostly white leadership and white boards serve clients who are mostly Black, Native, brown and people of color. …
“And the nonprofits aren’t necessarily addressing the root causes, such as system oppression, but maintaining the status quo by using approaches that focus only on adverse childhood experiences but not the adverse community conditions that continue to create those experiences.”
‘Systems have failed them, not them themselves’
Question: What are some of the narratives around homelessness you would like to see changed?
Michelle Merriweather: “We have found a way to criminalize homelessness that is ridiculous. We have found a way to blame the people that are forced to live on the street for their own situations without adequately providing them resources. The fact that we still have police responding to homeless crisis. … If somebody is harming themselves that is forced to live on the street, why is it necessary for a badge and gun to show up to respond to that?
“The biggest narrative that needs to be changed is that the people that are forced to live on the street are not criminals. These are first people, human beings, that deserve to be seen. Not walked over and ignored.
“That systems have failed them, not them themselves. And you can pick whatever system that is — the education, the health system, the criminal justice system, our veterans affairs system. …
“We have to stop blaming them for the situations that they have been forced into and we have to stop the militarized response to folks that need genuine support.”
‘There is no amount of service that is a house’
Q: When it comes to homelessness, how is Seattle doing?
Marc Dones: “When we talk about the solutions to homelessness, the idea that it this incredibly complex reality is fundamentally false. We understand and have for decades what is required if we want to end mass homelessness in this country. And it is that we need to build housing. We need to change our orientation to housing. Away from purely capitalist modes and toward housing justice modes. Toward the idea that housing is a human right.
“But in doing that we would have to fundamentally alter the nature of power and comfort for a class that will not do so. That is what is between any idea around ending homelessness and actually ending homelessness.
“Because there is the idea that we will services our way out of a problem that is fundamentally economic. And it simply cannot be done. There is no amount of service that is a house.”
LaMont Green: “I love Seattle. And I love the ethos of Seattleites of social justice and environmental responsibility. But however, when we look at the data it is telling us a very different story. It reveals highly racialized and racist outcomes that are steeped in anti-Blackness and Indigenous invisibility. …
“Unfortunately, the homelessness system has become the catchall for all of these system failures. And although the homelessness system is housing more people each year, it is hard to keep up with the new inflow of people becoming homeless, especially given the affordable and low-income housing crisis in our region.
“But what I am even more concerned about is this growing narrative such as ‘the homelessness crisis is killing Seattle’ and other ‘Seattle is dying’ rhetoric. That are not only false but this blame-the-victim, dog-whistle politics dangerously distracts us from the root causes and persistent drivers of inequity that results in thousands of families children, individuals, disabled folks and older adults with chronic diseases being priced out, swept away, forgotten and forced to live in the margins. All of this in a city, a nation, of great wealth.”