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To better address homelessness, Hennepin County looks to better understand racial disparities

MinnPost file photo by Jessica Lee
The encampment brought an often ignored aspect of the issue front and center: that homelessness in the Twin Cities, and in general, is overwhelmingly experienced by people of color.

The remaining people living in the south Minneapolis homeless encampment moved into the newly completed navigation center Tuesday. Though the encampment will no longer be as prominent along Hiawatha and Franklin Avenues, some policymakers in Hennepin County are hopeful that the crisis has sparked a new conversation about the issue.

“A very invisible population became tremendously visible very quickly,” pointed out Robert Lilligren, CEO of the Native American Community Development Institute, which has been among those working with the largely Native American community of campers to provide culturally sensitive aid. “There’s been a strong sense by all sectors of the community that we need to do something, and we need to do it better.”

The encampment brought an often ignored aspect of the issue front and center: that homelessness in the Twin Cities, and in general, is overwhelmingly experienced by people of color.

Now, Hennepin County is making the first steps to address some of the racial disparities in homelessness head-on, through a national program: SPARC, or Supporting Partnerships Against Racist Communities. Last month, Hennepin County became SPARC’s 8th and newest member, joining a roster that currently includes such cities as Portland, Columbus and Atlanta. The hope is that the county will benefit from those cities’ approaches to address racial disparities, as well as from SPARC’s coaching and national research around the issue.


Those who work on the issue have long known that the racial disparity in homelessness is stark and pervasive, and organizers say that plans to join SPARC began well before the encampment began to grow. Consistently, 65 percent of the people in Hennepin County’s homeless shelter system are African American, despite making up roughly 13 percent of the county’s overall population. Rates of homelessness for Native Americans are proportionally even higher, according to Alex Tittle, Disparity Reduction Director for Hennepin County.

The goal of the new initiative is to address the systemic issues that trap people into homelessness. For instance, David Hewitt, director of the county’s Office to End Homelessness, pointed to the concentration of evictions in neighborhoods where people of color are overwhelmingly affected. So there’s a need to “tackle evictions head-on in these neighborhoods, and to lower the barriers of people with convictions.”

Given the tight housing market in the Twin Cities, people with convictions and evictions on their records are encountering increased barriers to finding housing, even if they can afford the rent. “The intent,” Hewitt summed up, “is to think about structural change and not just about a new program.”

That structural change will be driven locally and backed up by research. Jeff Olivet, a senior advisor for the Massachusetts-based Center for Social Innovation, which spearheads SPARC, said that “Our goal is to equip local leaders to do the work.” To that end, his group recently conducted oral history interviews with people of color experiencing homelessness, with the goal of learning from their experiences and insights. He also facilitated focus groups with people and providers.  

Roughly 200 people from government and nonprofit groups from the county and around the state recently assembled for a day of training at St. Olaf church. The goal of these focus groups was to help people understand deep connections between structural racism and homelessness. “The response was fantastic,” said Olivet. “People were energized, engaged, ready to go back to their communities and lead conversations.”

“A lot of people after said this conversation felt different, to explicitly talk about homelessness and racial inequity at the same time as interlocked issues,” agreed Hewitt. Both men both emphasized that this is only the beginning. “We need to challenge selves to keep momentum going and make change happen,” said Hewitt. “It’s one thing to start a conversation, but how do you follow through with it?”

“There are a lot of steps between here and there,” added Olivet. “Structural racism has historical and contemporary roots. You don’t undo 400 years of racism history with a 3 year plan. It’s a long, sustained commitment.”

For Lilligren, that sustained commitment must also include a focus on another factor: healing. “Until we heal as a community I don’t think we’re going to make the progress we want to see. And healing isn’t just on the side of the people who have been hurt or damaged.”

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Howard Miller on 12/13/2018 - 11:41 am.

    Where do racial disparities come from? Is it the disproportionate number of adult minority members arrested for victimless crimes (e.g. drug use, failure to pay tickets)? Is it the disproportionate number of families ripped apart by well-meaning protective/educational service agencies? Is it the disproportionate number of children placed in foster care, placed on medication to relieve the loss of their families? Is it the disproportionate number of minorities evicted from ‘affordable’ rental housing so these properties can be batched and sold to developers to build market rate, multi-use, housing? Is it the disproportionate number of minority children identified with unverifiable diagnoses (EBD, LD, etc.) whose educational trajectories then spiral downward? Is it the disproportionate number of these children who then drop-out of school? Or is it all of the above? Hmmmm. Will SPARC work? About as well as the last ten social-educational initiatives to eliminate racial disparities.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 12/13/2018 - 04:34 pm.

    Homelessness has and will continue to be about mental illness and drug addiction. It has nothing to do with race. There are 184 low income complexes in Minneapolis alone, that house 22,139 families. There is also rent assistance in the form of money (tax dollars and private donations) to help also. There is an entire web page dedicated to helping folks get housing. It has nothing to do with more help, it is about drug abuse and mental illness.

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