Seattle Foundation Blog

What We've Learned about Homelessness and Race

A group of local experts shares how we must face race to solve homelessness and affordable housing

May 19, 2019

By Lisa Johnson, Communications Coordinator

Panelists speaking  Panelists Hayden, Garrett and Morales discuss the need to disrupt homelessness by addressing race.

It's no secret that affordable housing and homelessness are hot topics in Seattle right now. On May 14, during Affordable Housing Week, we welcomed a panel of experts to discuss the clear connection between race and homelessness.

The panelists came from local organizations leading on this issue: K. Wyking Garrett, president of Africatown Community Land Trust; Maria-Jose Morales, homeless employment specialist at Casa Latina; and Patricia Hayden, chief program officer of YWCA Seattle King County. Seattle Foundation Trustee Colleen Echohawk moderated the panel. Echohawk is also the executive director of Chief Seattle Club, a nonprofit that serves Native Americans experiencing homelessness.

Housing is close to my own heart. Before Seattle Foundation, I worked for several nonprofits that created and promoted affordable housing. More personally, I recently had a house fire that was a sharp reminder of how easy it is to become homeless. I would have been in a tough spot without resources from family and friends. And while I’ve felt frustrated at slow progress and overwhelmed by housing inequity, this panel was one of the best explanations I’ve heard of the problem and ways to move forward.

What we learned:

We can’t solve housing without addressing racism

“Homelessness comes from the breakdown of many systems,” Hayden says of her 30 years in the field. “And all of them are grounded in racism.” The data backs this up. American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander families are three times more likely to experience homelessness than White families. For Black families, it was seven times.

The stories are personal. At nine years old, Garrett remembers coming home to find his family’s belongings on the lawn. Because of savings and loans predation, their home of 20 years was “just gone.” More heartbreaking, it took his father years to accept that they would never get it back. When these individual losses repeated across his Central District community, he saw families displaced and networks of neighborhood support destroyed.

Boxes visualizing the price of prevention vs reactions  A Building Changes display highlights how preventing homelessness is cheaper than reacting to it.

Our shared history created these problems

The panelists drew clear connections between our country’s racist history and these inequities. Everything from the genocide of native peoples to Jim Crow laws to home lending discrimination created this economic repression. Garrett  highlighted how, for over 300 years, our history has actively prevented people of color from accumulating wealth. Slavery especially not only took the benefit of Black peoples' labor, but used it to build wealth for others.

These damages continue today with gentrification and the opportunity gap. “These are very recent histories and real American histories,” said Echohawk.

Morales highlighted how a lack of access to effective education affects the futures for many and keeps them stuck. She said people want to change their career options and find higher paid jobs at leading companies like Amazon and Microsoft, but struggle to pursue higher education when they don't have a place to live. 

“Communities have the power to solve their own issues”

All the panelists saw progress when the people most affected by housing and homelessness had power. “We have to recognize that communities have the potential to solve their own issues and are willing to do that,” Hayden shared. But these communities need not only to be included, but leading efforts.

Each of the panelists’ organizations had seen success with this approach. The YWCA’s explicit focus on eliminating racism has helped them create 1,000 units of affordable housing. Africatown Community Land Trust is doing groundbreaking work closing the wealth gap, creating black-owned housing and businesses in the Central District. And Chief Seattle Club is building 100 units of affordable housing for the native community here. But more than that, these organizations have been able to train new leaders that have both the technical expertise and lived experience to beef up the housing stock for years to come.

“We're fully capable, we're rich - how do we design for our own wellbeing, not others building for us,” Garrett said.

Guests mingle before the event  Guests mingle and discuss the event.

This is the right time and the right place

Panelists agree that Seattle is a great place to take the lead.

Seattle has unique potential right now. “We’ve chosen to be a place of solving hard problems for the world,” Garrett says. If our society can build advanced rockets and push for travel to Mars, he believes we can solve housing problems on our own planet.

Echohawk shared her “deep belief in Seattle’s ability to bring people inside and dismantle racism.” She sees herself as a bridge builder between fractured parts of our community and asks people to cross that bridge to each other. “It means sacrifice, looking deeply inside to see white supremacy and institutionalized racism,” she acknowledges. “But I invite people because this is the way to find solutions.”

Take action

To deepen your engagement on this issue, learn more about our Basic Needs Fund and consider a donation, or read a recent blog, An Unexpected Journey to Homelessness




Nonprofit Partners


affordable housingAmerican Indians and Alaska NativesAfrican AmericansAsian Americans and Pacific IslandersCommunities of colorEventsHomelessnessLatinxRacial equitySystems and policy change

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