A few days ago, the Pinellas Continuum of Care, a network of organizations and individuals concerned about ending homelessness, released its Racial Equity Toolkit.
A warning for those who tend to cover their ears and scream and stomp when certain words are mentioned. The 52-page toolkit contains a “Glossary of Shared Language” that includes definitions of terms such as Black Lives Matter, Critical Race Theory and institutional racism.
The guide seems timely, given the growing demand for racial justice and acknowledgement in some circles of the moral imperative to respond affirmatively.
The toolkit was created after a 2021 “Racial Disparities in Homelessness” study found that while Black people accounted for 10 percent of Pinellas County’s population, they made up 32 percent of the homeless.
“These inequities are even worse for families with children,” stated the study, which was funded by the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg and St. Vincent DePaul CARES.
One of its recommendations was that the Pinellas Continuum of Care tackle the crisis through “an explicit race equity lens.”
Duggan Cooley, CEO of the Pinellas Community Foundation and a member of the Continuum’s board of directors, emphasized the importance of creating such a guide.
“The Continuum of Care has been receiving requests from organizations for tools relating to race equity,” he said. “And we have been looking at the racial disparity issue in the number of people who are homeless, who identify as Black or African-American versus our population as a whole. And so that prompted a lot of questions. Organizations want tools to be able to do a better job as providers.”
As a Continuum, members are asking, “How do we do our work better?” he said, adding that the toolkit opens the way to “good self-examination” of how organizations reflect the people they serve, as well the community as a whole.
Members of the Continuum’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee began working on the toolkit after the disparity study was released last March.
The committee includes familiar names, among them St. Petersburg City Council Member Deborah Figgs-Sanders, who also sits on the Continuum’s board; Esther Matthews, president of the St. Petersburg Branch of the NAACP; and longtime homeless advocate Sheila Lopez of St. Vincent de Paul.
Amy Foster, CEO of the Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas, addressed the need for the special guide. “We know that our Black and Brown neighbors are disproportionately impacted by homelessness and we want to make sure that we have equitable outcomes, and that work starts with the providers. And to make sure there is no bias with their work,” she said.
“Once somebody presents themselves to the homeless system, there are places where bias comes into place,” Foster said, adding that systems upstream, such as discrimination in housing and inadequate pay fuel the crisis.
The Pinellas County-specific toolkit was adapted from one created by the Housing Development Consortium in Seattle and the Washington (State) Race Equity & Justice Initiative’s Organizational Race Equity Toolkit.
The Pinellas version offers a guide for creating a more equitable organizational culture for those that serve the homeless. But the information and instructions might also be applicable to other local groups as well.
There will be uncomfortable moments. Take the topic of white dominant culture.
“The premise of white dominant culture is the often unspoken and coded notion that values, behaviors, practices, beliefs, and ways of working associated with white people are seen as superior to those of people of color and other marginalized identities,” the guide states.
It adds, “Everything from hairstyles and dress to the pictures we post in our workspaces and, attention to timing, deadlines, and tardiness is guided by the dominant culture that surrounds us and what we come to view as our ‘normal.’”
The guide also states that use of correct vocabulary “is crucial to engaging in productive conversations about race and enacting racial equity work.” As an example, the term “minority,” with its connotation of less than, “is beginning to be overlooked in favor of “people of color.” And what exactly is equity and how does it differ from equality? There’s an answer in a six-page glossary.
Though important, the toolkit is not mandated, Cooley said. “Its creation has come from a need to develop tools to assist the Continuum and its members in doing a better job of addressing the clear racial disparities that are present in our homeless population as compared to our population as a whole,” he said. “We are all looking at this and saying, ‘How do we do a better job?’”
The Pinellas Continuum meets a HUD requirement that representatives from relevant organizations within a geographic area establish a continuum of care to end homelessness. The Homeless Leadership Alliance functions as the Continuum’s lead agency.
The Pinellas Continuum is working to ensure diversity, Foster said. “We track who sits on the board and various committees.” Furthermore, she said, funders such as the city of St. Petersburg and the Pinellas Community Foundation are concerned about equity and diversity and inquire about the boards, staff and policies of organizations requesting their funding.
Cooley concurred. “One question that we do ask organizations applying for grants is how is your staff and your board reflective of the population that you serve,” he said.
“And we also ask, how is it reflective of the community as a whole? As we have been asking those questions, organizations, I think, are looking at themselves, looking in the mirror and understanding that their board and the staff may not be reflective of the people they serve and the community. They are asking for tools and assistance in reflecting the community and the people they serve.”
Pinellas Community Foundation is preparing to offer another avenue to help. With funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, it will team up with grant partner Erik Smith of Inclusivity LLC to launch the Tampa Bay Equity Incubator. The incubator will work with nonprofits to provide tools and assistance “to address issues of cultural competency and race equity,” Cooley said.
The foundation opened the application process for nonprofits this week and its programs will run for a nine-to-12-month period. “It takes a while to build organizational culture and to change organizational culture,” Cooley said. “It takes a concerted effort and it takes time.”
Some of these well-meaning efforts could meet resistance.
But Foster believes an important start has been made to confront and eliminate the disparities evident in the high rate of homelessness among Pinellas County’s Black and Brown residents.
“Even though our outcomes haven’t shown significant decreases yet, the fact that we have named the problem and are focused on addressing it, is the first step in this process,” she said.