I recently received a survey regarding racism in the Hennepin County homeless shelter system. The results of the survey will become the basis for a workgroup that will look for ways to eliminate racism from the shelters.
Because of my work schedule I can’t attend the workgroup meetings, so I don’t know what outcomes to expect. I sincerely wish the workgroup success, because they’ve undertaken a big project. Their task intersects with systemic dynamics, volunteer training, racism within the homeless community, mental illness, and a host of other issues. Homeless individuals and families face enough challenges already. Experiencing racism in the middle of the system that is supposed to help them almost defies description in how insulting it is.
Because I received the results of the survey a week or two later, I have seen the variety of views that the workgroup will have to balance. They have a lot of material to work with, but the diversity of opinions about the causes of the problems, and about the way forward, ensure that they will not have an easy time. Even if they find a brilliant solution to the problem, they then have to convince everyone from the system managers at the county level to the volunteers in the shelter kitchens to follow the plan.
While I hope the workgroup succeeds, I am also struck by irony of their work. This seems like something Kafka or one of the other absurdist authors would describe with glee. Imagine what things will look like for the homeless if the workgroup succeeds. They can sit on hold for hours when calling the shelter intake line, probably only to hear that the shelters are full. Once they get into a shelter they enter a competition for the scarce permanent housing slots. While they wait for their opportunity to move into their own apartment they get to deal with the stress of homelessness and the uncertainty that it brings (which is even worse for homeless parents who have to find ways to keep their kids in school and safe from predators without scarring them for life). But at least the homeless can sleep well knowing that in the shelter they won’t be judged by their skin color.
Having written that last paragraph, I want to emphasize that I really do hope the workgroup succeeds. I know things will not get better for the homeless all at once, and that the workgroup will be one step towards a functional system to help those who really need it. They have a difficult task, something that would certainly be beyond me. Even if I had unlimited power and funds to reshape the system, I’m not wise enough to solve the problem they are taking on.
And yet, no matter how successful the workgroup is, I hope that no one makes a big fanfare their accomplishments. That would be like a football team that is losing 49-0 holding an end zone celebration after kicking a field goal. The system fails the homeless in so many ways. One workgroup making progress on one issue can’t let us think the problem has been solved.
by Marti Maltby, Director Peace House Community – A Place to Belong
This article originally appeared in “The Alley,” the newspaper for the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.