Housing More QTBIPOC

Anchor Communities are entering the second  stage in the work to end youth and young adult homelessness: Reducing homelessness. Two communities, Pierce and Walla Walla, have achieved quality, real-time data, and Yakima and Spokane aren’t far behind. This incredible milestone also contributes to the advancement of our racial and LGBTQ+ equity plan.

With quality data, communities get a clear picture of the disparities that young Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous People of Color (QTBIPOC) experience. Some examples of the disparities that exist in homelessness systems are: Young QTBIPOC returning to homelessness at greater rates, being placed in permanent housing at lower rates, and spending longer times experiencing homelessness than their white, straight, cisgender peers. Our definition of ending homelessness, functional zero, requires an end to all these disparities.

Moving into the reducing phase means that communities will plan and implement improvement projects meant to decrease the number of young people experiencing homelessness and leverage their data to evaluate whether these projects are making an impact. This positions the Anchor Community Initiative at the right moment to set goals aimed directly at reducing disparities for QTBIPOC. That’s why we set a goal directly aimed at this issue during our latest bi-annual strategy session: House more QTBIPOC.

To accomplish this goal, we will coach our Anchor Communities in the following areas:

  • Analysis: Quality data has the power to shine a light on disparities. We will help communities leverage their By-Name List data and insights provided by youth and young adults to identify root causes of disproportionality in their systems.
  • Action: Equipped with insights, Anchor Community teams have all the tools they need to work on improvement projects that address the root causes of disproportionality and move towards equitable outcomes for QTBIPOC.
  • Skill-building: To take action, team members will need to gain knowledge about racial and LGBTQ+ justice and confidence in facilitating conversations about equity work. We’ve added a Training Manager to our team to support these needs.

Concentrating our efforts on housing QTBIPOC will ultimately prepare communities to house all young people. When we focus on supporting the populations who face the most barriers to permanent housing, we end up creating a system that works better for everyone. It’s a strategy that follows john a. powell’s concept of targeted universalism.

The best moment to take action on disproportionality by  housing more QTBIPOC is right now. We’ve seen the global COVID-19 pandemic only amplify  existing inequities across almost every facet of our society, and especially for young people experiencing homelessness. Centering anti-racism in our strategy, data analysis and improvement projects is urgent and our Anchor Communities are rising to the occasion.

Education and My Experiences

Currently in my fourth year at Walla Walla University, I’m truly proud of myself for making it this far. Growing up, my family and I lived off social security, food stamps, and section eight housing. So, the fact that I’m going to college to have a career to provide for myself is truly a dream.

Esther

I’m the youngest out of four siblings. However, I only grew up around two of my siblings. Among my siblings, I am the first to go to college. Me and my two sibling who I grew up with were raised by a single mother who started, but never finished college. Throughout my college experience, I’ve felt the pressure to complete my degree since my mother didn’t, and there have been various times when the pressure to do well academically has been very stressful. I constantly deal with self-doubt about whether or not I’ll get my four-year degree, but when I apply myself every day, I prove to myself that I can do it.

Most students who attend college have a stable support system to turn to when they need guidance, but for me that’s been a challenge. My mother died of cancer almost seven years ago and she was my everything. Not having her to turn to during this very important transitional and pivotal time in my life is isolating, devastating, and makes me angry to say the least. Now living in the Walla Walla area, I have made connections with people that I can see being in my life for a long time, even after I complete my degree. That includes faculty from the university, friends I’ve made here, as well as people I see as mentors in my life. I’m studying strategic communication at Walla Walla University and I finally know what I want to do as a career. It took three years of college to have peace in knowing that I chose the right major and that I could have a career in something that I’m passionate about.

My long-term goal is to use my degree to change the foster care system from the inside out. Having personally been in the system more than once, I feel strongly about completing college because many youth who exit the system don’t graduate from college with a four-year degree. I want to use my experiences in foster care and in college to be an example for youth who’re currently in foster care, so they know that they have a purpose and that they’re more than their stories. Also, in using my degree, I want to give youth who are in foster care and who’ve aged out of the system the platform to tell their stories any way they want to—the good and the bad.

I believe in the power of owning your story and not allowing society to dictate how you tell it or express it. I’ve proven to myself, time and time again, that I’m resilient, I’ve accomplished and will continue to accomplish great things. I know I will get my four-year degree.

 

Youth-Led Activism in Walla Walla

The year 2020 has been a year of events that are unexplainable and out of this world. COVID-19 has forced the world to reshape how we go about our everyday lives and how we interact with one another. Being a college student, my spring quarter was online due to COVID-19. Then, George Floyd’s murder took place and has left the black community and people around the world at a loss for words and experiencing various heart aches. If you asked me to describe 2020 in three words, I would say “To be continued…”

Esther Taylor

Being a person of color, dealing with the killing of George Floyd and the many other black lives that have been lost this year and in the past, I feel I have a responsibility to speak up about racial injustice and systemic racism. I’ve been living in the Walla Walla area for almost a year and I’ve noticed that there is a lack of black people that live here. Even though there are not a lot of black people living in Walla Walla, the ones that do live here matter and our voices deserve to be heard and listened to. I want mine and other people of colors’ voices to be heard and taken seriously, not just during this time when it feels like the world has stopped, but continuously throughout life. There’s so much work to be done for the black community in making racial equality a reality for people of color.

Before the killing of George Floyd, I was not speaking up about racial injustice, nor was I staying in the loop about racial injustice. Even now, I still feel I need to pay more attention to all that’s going on in the world when it comes to racism, amongst other things. By trying to be more educated on the topic of racism, I’m able to have more in-depth conversations with people when the topic comes up in a conversation. To not acknowledge that there is racism is a serious problem and something that needs to be addressed head on.

I’ve gone downtown Walla Walla to protest for myself and the black community more than once this summer. The experiences I’ve had protesting in Walla Walla have been generally positive, but I have had a couple of experiences with naysayers as well. I wish that people who don’t have to experience racism could be open-minded, compassionate, and understanding to people of color who do have to deal with it. I want them to lend their voices in helping support the Black Lives Matter movement. This year has shown me that now more than ever it is important to come together in solidarity, supporting one another in changing systemic racism, and speaking up for people who can’t or are afraid to.

With police brutality having a strong intersection with racism and homelessness, it’s important to examine why, change societal stigmas around people of color and homelessness, and be a voice for people who identify with these experiences. People of color are hounded by the police time and time again due to the color of their skin and it isn’t right. People of color deserve to have equal opportunities like anyone else to live in America feeling safe, secure, and loved. The same principle goes for anyone who has experienced or is experiencing homelessness. Whether living on the streets, sleeping in your car, or couch surfing, being homeless is not fun nor should it be something society continuously overlooks and stigmatizes. In reality, people who have experienced or are homeless deserve so much credit for persevering and overcoming a very hard obstacle and circumstance in their lives.

As a Walla Walla community, each and every one of us has a voice that can be used to end racism, police brutality, and homelessness. It is important to address the unfair treatment of communities that are viewed a certain way, and to help make long-lasting change for these communities and the younger generation coming after them.

Our Definition of Ending Youth and Young Adult Homelessness

What does it mean to end youth and young adult homelessness? In the Anchor Community Initiative, we define ending youth and young adult homelessness as reaching functional zero – a state where a community’s youth and young adult homelessness system has the capacity to house every young person experiencing homelessness each month.

Exact definitions for functional zero are tailored to local communities and to specific populations. For example, reaching functional zero for youth and young adults looks different from reaching functional zero for chronic homelessness. Generally, definitions of functional zero call for communities to have enough housing, services, and shelter beds for everyone in the community who needs support. Common goals include increasing permanent housing, reducing, or eliminating unsheltered homelessness, decreasing returns to the homelessness system, and reducing the length of time that people experience homelessness.

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) provides benchmarks for ending youth and young adult homelessness. The Anchor Community Initiative’s functional zero measures are based on these benchmarks, with the addition of equity measures. We believe that communities cannot achieve an end to youth homelessness without also ending disproportionality.

Disproportionality means that young BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folx experience homelessness at higher rates than their white, heterosexual, cisgender peers. For example, in our 2018 landscape scan we found that while 4% of the population in Washington state is Black, Black young people represented 24% of youth in the homeless system. Aside from experiencing higher rates of homelessness, these young people also experience systemic and institutional racism, resulting in lower rates of placements into permanent housing, a higher rate of returns to homelessness, and longer time experiencing homelessness compared to their peers.

Our definition of functional zero takes these disparities into account. To get to functional zero, Anchor Communities must ensure that young BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folx:

  • Return to homelessness at equal or lower rate than their peers
  • Are housed at the same or higher rate than their peers
  • Spend equal or less time experiencing homelessness than their peers

Coaching our Anchor Communities to these functional zero and zero disproportionality measures keeps racial and LGBTQ+ equity embedded into the core of our work. Achieving these outcomes requires Anchor Communities to consider the impact to young BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folx in their reduction strategies and improvement projects. This approach helps team members identify and address the root causes of disproportionality and inequitable outcomes, helping us create a world where homelessness can truly be eradicated.

Advocating for Racial Justice

As nationwide protests have unfolded over the murder of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, and many more Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), the staff at A Way Home Washington have been reflecting on the intersection between the over policing of BIPOC and youth and young adult (YYA) homelessness. We cannot in good conscience stand in silence, and we’ve begun to develop a local advocacy strategy geared towards addressing these issues.

The integrity of police institutions has been called into question. Many concerned community members are wondering, does the police exist to serve and protect the larger community, or to perpetuate systems of power? Those of us who work in the social services sector know all too well what the consequences of policing can be for youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. The over policing of BIPOC has led to high rates of incarceration, which results in barriers to employment and housing, leading to the overrepresentation of BIPOC in homeless systems and an increase in those experiencing housing instability. We have heard many times from the youth and young adults that we work with that they are harassed by police while experiencing homelessness. This issue becomes exacerbated for BIPOC.

Artwork Deonate photographed in Seattle

For me, this fight is personal. Every time I turn on the news and see one of my fellow African American brothers, sisters, and non-binary kinfolk murdered by the police, it feels like a piece of my soul has also been killed alongside of them. My heart goes out to people experiencing homelessness as they are caught in the crossfire. When the initial protests broke out in downtown Seattle, I observed police using mace, gas, and force on individuals experiencing homelessness to funnel them out of the area. I also observed youth and young adults experiencing homelessness pleading with police to stop because they did not have any place to go.

Because policing and systems of care are so intrinsically intertwined in the work that we do to address youth and young adult homelessness, we’ve made the choice to help elevate community demands to defund police departments and reinvest the money back into the Black community. Along with 11 partners, we wrote a letter to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best. We’re also supporting local advocacy efforts in our Anchor Communities. In Walla Walla, the community has risen to demand a change in police culture, and we are here to follow the community’s lead while lending our support and expertise in starting dialogue with elected officials.

We’ve also started building a coalition within the youth and young adult homelessness sector to explore what our role is in the movement to advance racial justice. We believe that we need to question the ways non-profits have traditionally held power and examine how we can shift power towards grassroots organizers and coalitions led by young people.

Change sometimes requires radical thinking and action. A system built on a foundation of abuse and oppression towards BIPOC and defenseless individuals is one that does not serve the people. That system can either transform or risk being dismantled and replaced. We stand behind all communities demanding justice and shifting culture towards one that is equitable and just. We believe that’s the way to ensure that all young people can access the resources they need to move out of homelessness and thrive.

The Anchor Community Initiative’s Equity Plan

Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and LGTBQ+ folx disproportionately experience homelessness. If we’re truly serious about ending homelessness, we must be equally serious about ending the systemic racism and discrimination against LGBTQ+ folx that lead to this inequity.

Often, racial and LGBTQ+ equity are perceived as “extra work” that we do in addition to the “real work” of ending homelessness. We believe that equity IS the work, and that we cannot end homelessness without it. To ensure equity is an action embedded in all our values, practices, and programs, we’ve woven equity milestones into the Anchor Community Initiative work plan. We cannot say the work is complete without accomplishing them. Here are the elements of our equity plan:

Defining Success

Last year, we defined what ending homelessness means to us. The Anchor Community Initiative is driving towards functional zero, a state where communities have the capacity to house every actively homeless, unaccompanied young person. We decided that for us, ending homelessness also means examining housing placements, returns to homelessness, and length of time experiencing homelessness for young BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folx, and ensuring their outcomes in these measures are equitable.

Education and Optimization

This year, Anchor Communities are implementing projects to reduce the number of unaccompanied youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. For these projects to truly drive towards ending homelessness, they also need to drive towards equitable outcomes for young BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folx. To make sure improvement projects are aligned with equity outcomes, we are:

  • Enhancing youth leadership in Anchor Community teams by developing partnerships with youth advisory groups that will design and select improvement projects.
  • Establishing race and LGBTQ+ equity competencies to ensure every team member is equipped to embed equity outcomes into improvement projects.
  • Coaching communities to set goals around identifying and ending disproportionality in their systems.
  • Improving the collection of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (SOGIE) data to reduce the number of young people on the By-Name List with this information listed as “unknown.”

Full Integration

In our vision for 2021 and beyond, every improvement project will directly lead to equity outcomes. That means every project will lead to greater housing placements, reduced returns to homelessness, or less time experiencing homelessness for young BIPOC or LGBTQ+ folx. Teams will have reliable data to measure these outcomes, including quality SOGIE data for young people on the By-Name List. And Anchor Community teams will have strong relationships with youth advisory groups guiding the direction of projects. With all these elements in place, we’ll be on our way to truly end youth and young adult homelessness!

Orgullosa: The Intersections in Our Identities

When I wrote about the reasons why I choose to use the word Latinx, for myself and for A Way Home Washington’s organizational voice, I touched on the fact that within the community there are vast differences of opinion on the word. You’ll likely find just as many cases for embracing the word as you’ll find rejections of the word floating out there. For me, one of the strongest reasons to embrace Latinx is to recognize the intersections in our identities.

Last year, I read an interview with Pose actress Mj Rodriguez where she spoke about how as Latinx people we must evolve in our understanding and treatment of the LGBTQ+ community. Watching the season 1 Pose episode where Blanca sees her family for the first time in years made me deeply sad because I felt the scene could have taken place in the 80s (when the show is set) or in 2020. In the rejection of the word Latinx, I see a resistance to recognize and embrace queerness in our community.

As with all issues that disproportionately impact a certain community, we must dig deep into the root causes if we want to solve it. Just like people of color aren’t born predisposed to homelessness, Latinx people aren’t born predisposed to transphobia and homophobia. But we are raised in environments filled with the scars of colonialism and white supremacy, and we internalize narratives that oppress the LGBTQ+ community.

While Latin America is a region filled with people of Indigenous, African, and European roots, many cultural markers that we associate with latinidad today are the vestiges of European colonization. When the Spanish came to our shores, they were dually interested in the continent’s natural riches and in spreading Catholicism. To this day, some Latin American people and Latinx people in the United States point to their religion as the reason they discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community. Even within the past few years, I have seen protests rise in my home country, Panama, opposing the notion that schools should teach children that trans and non-binary folx are part of our community, worthy of respect.

¡Orgullosa! Proud to be Latinx and pansexual!

As a pansexual Latina and an advocate to end young and young adult homelessness, untangling the web of beliefs that leads to discrimination within my community matters to me. First, because LGBTQ+ people are part of our Latinx community, and we deserve for our identities to be acknowledged and respected. And second, because when we say that LGBTQ+ young people and young people of color disproportionately experience homelessness, we must recognize that these two identities do not exist separately. Many young people are LGBTQ+ AND people of color, and I want to be part of a culture that cares for them and gives them homes where they can feel safe and loved.

“Con un dedo no se tapa el sol.” You can’t cover the sun with a finger. That’s what my father told me yesterday when I spoke to my parents about my desire to raise Latinx children who grow up knowing that LGBTQ+ folx are part of our community, worthy of respect. I chose to interpret that as a tiny concession in our generational divide, an acknowledgement that hiding the truth from children won’t get us to a better world. After that conversation, I thought about all the other Latinx children who’ve grown up to see that discrimination – whether it’s transphobia, homophobia, anti-Blackness among non-Black Latinx folx – has no place in our culture. That it was not a part of our culture to begin with, but has taken root after centuries of colonialism. We’re out here, talking to our elders, committing even before our children are born that they will feel safe and loved by us as they are. And I am hopeful that together we will be enough to create the culture our future needs.

We Can’t Collect Data Without Shifting Culture

June is Pride Month! To commemorate the Stonewall riots that took place in late June 1969, each year, across the United States, we join in countless festivities to honor the past. As we are continually reminded, during these revolutionary times, that riots have led to civil rights for marginalized communities, I wanted to turn our attention to the words of Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson. “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.” At A Way Home Washington, we are working toward the liberation of LGBTQ+ young people in our system by centering LGBTQ+ data collection in our work to end youth homelessness.

We believe that to end youth homelessness we must end disproportionality within the homelessness system. According to True Colors United 2019 report, we know that 20-40% of youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ+ although 7-10% of the youth general population identifies as LGBTQ+. Washington is a leader in discussing Sexual Orientation Gender Identity Expression (SOGIE) data collection but, in my humble opinion, it’s time for some implementation. SOGIE data is instrumental in ending youth homelessness for a population that greatly makes up the overall homeless population. With Black Trans Women disproportionally leading most horrible statistics, disproportionately showing up in murder statistics to name the most horrible, how do we equitably serve my community experiencing homelessness?

As I searched for “best practices” in this area, I kept running into a common problem that showed up for communities from San Francisco to New York City. Every community reported that LGBTQ+ folx do not trust systems with their SOGIE data. This is not surprising knowing how historically the HIV/AIDS epidemic ostracized and demonized queer men, specifically, creating a distrust in our medical system. This still plays out today as we saw transgender healthcare protections reversed under our current administration. During my time working in social services, as an employee, I experienced microaggressions around my gender identity and heard discriminatory comments made by staff due to their “misunderstanding” of young people’s sexuality and/or gender identity. Living out loud is not safe in or outside of our systems of care, so why would an LGBTQ+ community member entering homelessness trust us?

The first step is answering that question for yourself, then your agency, and then the broader system that your agency inhabits. We must shift the internal culture of our system, centering equity for LGBTQ+ and young people of color. This looks like interrogating our spaces, interactions, and responses to crisis through an anti-oppression lens. We also must critique what aspects of white dominant culture inhabit the “rules and regulations” that we follow to protect the clients as well as the folx serving them. Of course, there are big policy and legislative shifts, like insurance covering gender affirming surgeries and operations for your Transgender employees, but there are small changes that go a very long way, like making a Pride agency logo for June.

Sylvia Rivera at the Fourth Annual Christopher Street Liberation Day March, 1973. Photo by Richard C. Wandel 1973

When I think about LGBTQ+ inclusivity, safety, and security within a system I think about the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and the STAR House, founded by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera following the historic Stonewall Riots in New York City. Marsha and Sylvia saw that Transgender and Queer homeless youth were not getting their needs met and founded STAR to fill that gap. STAR was the first of its kind, but what would it be like if every youth homelessness shelter already incorporated safety and security for Trans and Queer homeless youth? What would it be like if transitional housing services were more thoughtful of the barriers to employment for Trans individuals? What if we all, in the youth homelessness sector, were so thoughtful and proactive about equity that LGBTQ+ young people felt safe wherever they turned for support? We need to create that system before we start asking folx to trust us with their SOGIE data.

Ending Police Violence Is Our Fight

Our Coaching and Improvement Coordinator Isaac explains why our sector cannot sit on the sidelines as our communities fight to end police violence. Please help us elevate community organizers’ demands in Seattle and send a message to Mayor Jenny Durkan calling for less policing and more community-based solutions,

I can’t start writing without acknowledging #GeorgeFloyd and the long list, spanning 400 years of American violence, of Black and Brown folks murdered by the state. The murder of Black and Brown folks by the state has been embedded in the history of the United States. As a Black person living in this country, I still struggle with finding ways to talk about this history and our current times like it’s not my own.

These murders are a reminder that this world does not see me as equal due to the color of my skin. I remember the words of James Baldwin, that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” My mother and grandparents made sure to keep me conscious, and suspicious, of the state at a young age. Even as they held positions in systems they called corrupt, we survived on truth, transparency, and the knowledge that things could be better.

Black and Brown families, youth and adults, keep disproportionally falling through the cracks of public services due to racial discrimination and/or bias within these systems. This struggle of calling for our “systems of care” to care for everyone has been carried for centuries by Black and Brown revolutionaries, but it’s not just my problem, or Black and Brown people’s problem. It is a problem for our whole society to solve.

As an advocate for ending youth homelessness, I do not struggle to talk about how the system fails young people experiencing homelessness, every day. What I do struggle with is knowing that this system is directly connected to the state-sanctioned violence that allows police brutality to disproportionally impact Black and Brown people. The overrepresentation of Black and Brown folks being arrested, over-policed, and ultimately gaslit into submission at the hands of the folks who are tasked with “protecting and serving” communities can easily be connected to the overrepresentation of Black and Brown youth in the homeless system. Black and Brown communities are at no fault in this overrepresentation, though our cultural narratives would have us believe so.

These narratives do not serve us in our work to end youth and young adult homelessness. As workers in this sector, we must adopt anti-racist practices to end the funneling of Black and Brown youth into our system. Black Lives Matter is our fight, as are the countless other movements demanding police accountability. Standing in solidarity with these protests is standing in solidarity with the 16-year-old Black young person who cannot access services due to biased federal mandates that rule our local shelters. It’s standing in solidarity with the 23 year old Latinx young person who lost all of their belongings in an encampment sweep.

The fact that large groups of folks experiencing homelessness can be categorized as a gang and jailed is police brutality. Calling to end youth homelessness must require our systems to end police brutality. Here are a few things we can do as a system:

  1. Listen to Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) young voices to inform your system FIRSTAt a demonstration I recently attended, the organizers gave a safe space for young people to use their voice for change. In our system, you need to allow feedback from young people to better inform your practice. Those young people need to represent the disproportional number of BIPOC in our system. If you are noticing that you are listening to mostly white voices, you need to start asking why. Wherever you are at in elevating young people’s voices, you need to add an anti-racist lens. The youth are the future, so do not prematurely bury them with their ancestors by not listening to them.
  2. Collaborate with the advocacy of BIPOC folks in your communityFind your local Black Lives Matter affiliate and learn from their practices. During this time, we have seen millions of links to bail out funds, mutual aid funds, and meal trains. These programs have existed since the Internet began, and they have been organized by grassroots community efforts. Partnering with these efforts rather than creating this intricate maze of care that young people continuously struggle to navigate centralizes support. Ending youth homelessness looks like talking to all folks trying to change the world, so get connected!
  3. Create advocacy agendas and demands requiring police brutality and encampment sweeps to end in your communitiesIn Seattle, our police force has over $400 million to “protect and serve.” Our local organizers demanded the City cut that budget in half and reallocate those funds into community-based solutions. Could you imagine what we could do if part of that money was used to end youth and young adult homelessness? Imagine how much money the whole entire state has allocated to policing while we know that policing homelessness is not working. We need to advocate for these types of changes so that we can stop state-sanctioned violence at the hands of “protect and serve.’

George Floyd’s daughter recently was recorded saying her daddy changed the world. I imagine that Martin Luther King Jr’s kids, Malcolm X’s kids, and many other revolutionaries’ children felt the same. But what about the folks that are not elevated in the news? What happens to their kids? Our work is to make sure that they do not end up in homelessness. That they do not get exited from any program into homelessness. That they feel safe and secure in a world that historically has not protected them due to their skin tone. We need to stand with justice, and not the system that calls itself justice currently. The kind that is demanding that things change for the better. For all of us.

Safe Housing and Environmental Justice

On Earth Day, our Communications Director Sully reflects on how safe housing and environmental justice are intertwined.

When Governor Inslee kept $500,000 towards the Centralized Diversion Fund in the final state budget, we all let out a sigh of relief at A Way Home Washington. We knew that the COVID-19 outbreak meant lower revenues than expected and difficult decisions for the Governor, so we were all glad to see supports for young people experiencing homelessness remain intact. But at the same time, my heart felt heavy for the opportunities that the pandemic cost our state. It was especially hard to see $50 million towards reducing the effects of climate change disappear, because I am convinced that safe housing access and environmental justice are intertwined.

Environmental justice applies an equity lens to environmental issues. Communities of color and low-income households are disproportionately affected by issues like air pollution, industrial pollution, and climate change. The Front and Centered Environmental Justice Map shows that our state is no exception, and areas with higher numbers of people of color experience higher environmental health disparities. This is not a coincidence – it is the result of decades of discriminatory housing policies and environmental regulations that put flight paths and industrial waste dumps in these areas.

As advocates to end youth and young adult homelessness, we are working towards safe and stable housing for young people, and towards supports that help young people’s whole selves thrive. We cannot fully achieve either of these goals without environmental justice. In the past year, we’ve seen how the worsening effects of climate change are rendering homes unsafe and unstable around the world, and specifically affecting indigenous communities. In my homeland of Panama, the Guna people settled on the Caribbean coast after centuries of colonial displacement from their inland home, and now rising sea levels are displacing them once more. Bushfires in Australia wiped away thousands of homes, displacing thousands of aboriginal people and destroying their cultural sites. We cannot wait until wildfires in the Pacific Northwest push thousands of people out of their homes before we act decisively against climate change.   

Displacement is just the most obvious connection between environmental hazards and housing instability for vulnerable communities. As the COVID-19 outbreak unfolds, we’re seeing the more nuanced impacts of environmental injustice on communities of color. By now, we’ve likely all heard that pre-existing health conditions, like diabetes and asthma, put individuals at higher risk of developing complications from the virus. Some have even gone the extra step and made the connection that COVID-19 is impacting Black and Latinx communities more severely because these communities have higher rates of these pre-existing conditions. But we can’t stop there. We also have to face the reason why these communities have higher rates of these health conditions – systemic racism.

Systemic racism is responsible for everything from inequitable access to healthcare to the chronic stress caused by discrimination. It’s responsible for the poor environmental conditions of areas with large populations of people of color, an underlying cause of higher rates of asthma. Pair higher rates of asthma with greater representation among frontline workers still reporting to their jobs, and many people of color face a lose-lose situation: Go to work and put their health at risk, or lose their income.

So, how can we stop environmental injustice? Just like with ending homelessness, we need to think about upstream, system-level change. Individual actions to protect the environment, like reducing our personal consumption or single-use plastics or driving less often to lower our carbon emissions, can only take us so far. We need to continue these individual actions, and also advocate for systemic change, like holding corporations accountable for negative environmental impacts and investing in mitigation efforts that center people of color.

Start your journey as an environmental justice advocate by learning about the work already going on in our state. Organizations like Front and Centered and Got Green are leaders in environmental justice to follow, centering the experiences and leadership of people of color. Let’s work together to create a world where all young people are housed, and where every young person lives in a healthy environment!