Advancing Equity: A Letter to the Your Way Home Community

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Dear Your Way Home Community,

Last Friday, I was honored to host many of you for our 6th Annual Your Way Home Summit: Advancing Equity. As the Administrator for the lead public agency of Your Way Home, the Montgomery County Office of Housing and Community Development, I recognize that this event provides an opportunity for many of our core providers, community partners, funders, landlords, and consumers to hear about the progress we’ve made in ending homelessness over the past year, and the work that we plan to do moving forward to accelerate our impact.
 
This year’s Summit provided much to celebrate:

  • A 37% reduction in homelessness since 2014, as measured by our annual Point in Time Count, including a 50% reduction in homelessness among families with children.
  • An increase in the percentage of people exiting homeless shelters directly to permanent housing to 57%, up from 35% prior to Your Way Home launching, and
  • A success rate of 86% overall- meaning that of the people we help to move to permanent housing, 86% do not return to homelessness within at least 2 years.

 
These accomplishments are due to the efforts of our community members who have worked so hard to move the needle on these challenging issues, by embracing strategies like Coordinated Entry, housing-focused Emergency Shelters, Housing Resource Centers, strong connections to Supportive Services in our community, and a partnership structure that includes voices from across sectors to guide our common agenda.
 
And yet- there is still so much work to be done.
 
As my experience as a Your Way Home system leader has evolved over the past four years, I have come to learn that even our best interventions can only go so far to help people recover from the traumatic experience of homelessness.
 
In other words, we have treated the symptoms of homelessness, but not the root causes- like poverty, violence, discrimination, and a lack of affordable housing, to name a few.
 
During our Summit last Friday, I was able to share how Your Way Home has finally built the will, resources and champions to dig into these root cause issues, and to understand their relationship to homelessness and what we can do about them, together, as a community.
 
Here’s what we believe to be true:
 
First, for every 1 household that experiences homelessness in Montgomery County, 20 more are on the brink. The problem is, it’s difficult to predict who they are, whether they will become homeless, or how to prevent them from doing so. And just to be clear, we simply do not have the funding or human resources to help everyone. However, we’ve spent the past year researching better strategies and promising practices to do so. This research culminates in our Unlocking Doors report.
 
Second, is that we know that homelessness is disproportionately experienced by people of color and other historically underrepresented and disadvantaged groups. In Montgomery County, 50% of the population we serve through Your Way Home is black or African American, compared to about 9% of the general population. Forty-eight percent of persons served by Your Way Home have at least one reported disabling condition, compared to 14% of the general population in the state of Pennsylvania.  Sixty-four percent of homeless households are headed by women, including 89% of households with children. Finally, national studies have indicated that as many as 40% of youth experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ, compared to about 7% in the general population.
 
So, when you begin to look at the data closely; when you study our country’s major systems like housing, criminal justice, and healthcare; and when you really listen to people’s stories, you can’t help but conclude the following:
 
We cannot talk about ending homelessness without also talking about the impact of institutional and structural discrimination on certain groups, particularly on people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities. We cannot help but conclude that our systems have been designed to discriminate against these groups, and that as a result, it has become easier for certain groups to become homeless in the first place, and it is harder for them to leave.
 
As advocates, policymakers, funders, landlords, and service providers, we have an imperative to not only deeply understand the issue of discrimination and its impact on homelessness, but we must also proactively work to redesign and retool our programs, organizations, and culture to overcome these inequities.
 
Your Way Home is committed to leading this conversation forward. At our Summit, we provided some introductory material on the topic of equity and homelessness through our keynote speaker, Jeff Olivet, whose work on Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities concluded that structural racism is a driving factor of homelessness. You can read more about his work here. Jeff’s firm will continue to work with Your Way Home through the fall to conduct an Equity Evaluation.  This evaluation will review our Your Way Home system performance data, policies and procedures, and board recruitment practices through an equity lens and then will provide specific strategies for our partnership to adopt in pursuance of advancing equity. A multi-sector Advisory Team is being gathered to guide this work, and will be hosting community forums and consumer listening sessions throughout the summer and fall. We’ll be sharing progress on this evaluation at futureCommunity Meetings, through our newsletter, and on our website and social mediachannels.
 
We also hosted a panel discussion at the Summit with leaders from philanthropy, public health, and affordable housing to discuss the impact of equity in these systems. The spirit of their discussion was captured in graphic visuals, featured above. Finally, we provided copies of The Color of Law and “Awake to Woke to Work: Advancing a Race Equity Culture”, to all conference attendees. You can find copies or links to these resources on the Resources page of our website.
 
Our Summit on Friday started the conversation on equity within our partnership, but we know that this is a long road ahead. While our Equity Evaluation will provide more specific strategies and goals, the Your Way Home Operations Team will be adopting some initial strategies to advance equity in our partnership, such as:

  • Sharing system performance data disaggregated by demographic group;
  • Including equity, discrimination, bias, and similar topics as part of our Community Meetings, Continuum of Care Governance Team meetings, and Action/ Advisory Team meetings moving forward;
  • Ensuring diversity on our councils, teams, and speaker panels that is representative of the populations we serve;
  • Providing more training opportunities for topics such as implicit bias and microaggressions;
  • Connecting our community to more resources for learning about issues of discrimination and equity, especially as it relates to ending homelessness, through our website, newsletter, and social media.

 
I’m continually humbled by the passion for ending homelessness among our community, and encouraged by the number of people who have already reached out since Friday to share that the decision to advance equity in our partnership is an imperative that will strengthen our system. I invite you to join us in taking this significant and courageous step towards advancing equity for the benefit of all.
 
In partnership,
 
Emma W. Hertz, MPA
Administrator, Montgomery County Office of Housing and Community Development