Recently, I looked through the list of names of my former clients who died over the years. I obtained this list at last December’s local National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day vigil. It occurred to me that several of the names were Black men and women. Some were housed at the time of their death, and some were still unhoused. The longer I stared at the piece of paper that should never exist in the first place, the angrier I felt.

It infuriates me that many of these amazing souls never had the opportunity to obtain housing. Why does this keep happening? As a person of color who worked in the homeless response system, I understand too well how racism intersects with our work.

When Systemic Injustices Emerge

In my previous role as a service provider, I recall sitting through numerous coordinated entry meetings with a bunch of White folks in the room, while it was me and usually one or two other staff who identified as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). At these bi-weekly meetings, we reviewed the By-Name list, where we prioritized and made life-changing decisions on who received housing assistance.

At the top of the list were mainly White men, while a majority of the BIPOC clients were near or at the bottom of the list. These BIPOC clients were classified as “less vulnerable” through the lens of middle-class White America. I had relationships with most of the clients on the list. And I also knew that the White folks who rose to the top were far less likely to die on the streets than the Black people stuck at the bottom.

When Clients Said the “N” Word

Some of the clients I tried to so hard to assist threw racial slurs at me and refused to work with me because of the color of my skin. White leadership could only sympathize so much. I still had to walk past these clients every day after such hurtful interactions.

Undoing Structural Racism

For as much good as the homeless services field does in housing people and meeting their basic needs, we need to be honest: our field perpetuates structural racism. We can’t ignore that fact. We need to do better, especially for the sake of BIPOC employees.

White People: Time to Listen

If you are White, these experiences may come as a shock to you. Please be mindful that your BIPOC colleagues have a huge weight on their shoulders they carry daily, one that you have the privilege of avoiding. Give them the respect to voice their opinions without fear of judgment or punishment. Truly value and listen to what they have to say. Question your hiring practices and who you select to enter housing programs. After all, we are all in this together to end homelessness.

Read the full article about employees of color in the homeless services system by Samantha Wood at National Alliance to End Homelessness.