An episode of the “Changing the Conversation” podcast
Regina Cannon and Ellen Bassuk discuss addressing housing stability with host Kristen Paquette.
August 3, 2020
Erika Simon, Producer: [00:00] Hello, and welcome to Changing the Conversation. While we take a brief hiatus from producing new episodes, we are re-releasing this fan favorite for your listening pleasure. We will be back soon with new episodes. Before we get started, we want to acknowledge that as our communities respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, this is a difficult time for everyone, especially for people who are marginalized and those providing health and human services. We are deeply thankful to all the health and human service providers and community leaders who are working tirelessly to keep people safe and well, and to help folks who are sick to recover. We appreciate you beyond measure. Please email us at info@C4Innovates.com if we can support you or your programs in any way. All of us at C4 wish health and strength to you, your families and friends, and the people you work with.
Kristen Paquette, Host: [00:59] Hello and welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host today, Kristen Paquette, CEO at C4 Innovations. I’m so pleased to be joined today by my colleagues, Dr. Ellen Bassuk and Regina Cannon as we talk about some trends in the field of housing stability and homelessness. Dr. Ellen Bassuk is C4’s founder and also the founder and president of the Bassuk Center, and the founder and former president of the National Center on Family Homelessness. Ellen is a pioneer in documenting the causes and consequences of family homelessness, and for over 30 years has given a voice to children and families experiencing homelessness and housing instability as a clinical researcher, psychiatrist, and advocate. Ellen, thank you for being here with me today.
Dr. Ellen Bassuk, Guest: [01:41] Thank you, Kristen.
Kristen: [01:42] Regina Cannon is the Chief Equity and Impact Officer at C4 Innovations. Regina has dedicated her career to being a vocal, active leader, fighting for equitable policies, systems, and institutions, and addressing marginalization of people of color. She has more than 18 years of experience leading anti-poverty initiatives, addressing homelessness, supportive housing, criminal justice reform, community capacity building, and youth leadership development. Thank you, Regina, for being here with us today.
Regina Cannon, Guest: [02:09] It’s a pleasure to be with you today, Kristen.
Kristen: [02:11] I’m so grateful to have a little time with you both to take a step back and think really broadly about the landscape of housing stability and homelessness, and to get your expert thinking on where we’ve come from, where we’re headed, and what is most needed right now to ensure that individuals, youth, families have access to the housing and services and support they need not only to avoid homelessness, but to ensure long-term stability and safety. I know this covers a lot of ground, and we don’t have a lot of time today, so I wanted to get your thoughts in a few key areas. And maybe we could start with this notion of reframing that’s taken place recently, where we’re seeing a shift away from a focus on homelessness and homeless services and towards a concept of housing stability. Where is this shift coming from? And more importantly, what does it mean for people who are facing housing concerns? Ellen, could you start us off?
Ellen: [03:07] It’s only been recently since housing instability has become the headline rather than homelessness. If you really think through the concept, homelessness is an extreme form of housing instability. And I think it’s been precipitated by the increase in numbers of people who are low-income renters, who are housing unstable, and in fact, very concretely who are housing burdened, meaning that they’re spending more than 50% of their income on housing. There’s an estimated more than 20 million households in that category. So, homelessness is one end of the spectrum, but housing instability goes well beyond the loss of bricks and mortar. So that might be, it’s also related to very devastating consequences in the health area and has relatively poor outcomes. So, that might be a way to begin to frame it.
Regina: [04:19] No, absolutely. I agree with Ellen, it’s a progression of our thinking. We’re understanding more and more and acknowledging that it’s not just the four walls and a roof, that it really is about the stability. It’s about making sure that people can sustain that housing, that it’s a place where they have opportunity, it’s a place where they have resources. And so we’re beginning to be more comprehensive in the way that we look at housing, especially for those that are the most vulnerable in our population.
Kristen: [04:46] Thank you both so much. It seems like this is an important opportunity, as we think about broadening our thinking around housing stability and what that means and who needs support to maintain stable housing. It also feels like in some ways it could create a lot more demand on service systems that we know are already typically overburdened. So what do people really need to ensure housing stability? How is that playing out right now, Ellen?
Ellen: [05:14] Well, a lot of the national policy in the homelessness area has been driven by HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development], which is a housing agency that does not, in general, support services. And if you think of any of our families, there’s not a family who can live independently. I mean, we’re all very interdependent and that services matter, and that services need to be coupled with housing, integrated with housing, and there needs to be continuity in care over the lifespan. And in the work that we’ve done with families, it’s clear that a lot of this needs to begin when a mother is pregnant. It needs to be right at the beginning to support a lot of these kids to be able to grow up and thrive.
Regina: [06:06] And it’s also partnerships. I think one of the things that we’re beginning to learn more and more as part of our homeless response systems is that we need to be true partners and collaborators with other systems. For a long time, we thought we could solve this on our own, and we realize how untenable that proposition is. And so we’re reaching out to other service providers, we’re reaching out to employment agencies, we’re reaching out to grassroots organizations that are fighting for better housing. And so I think it’s incumbent upon us in this field to continue to have those partnerships. Otherwise, we’re never going to get to a place of housing stability for the population that we serve.
Kristen: [06:45] And your comments, Regina, make me think about the conversation about continuously moving upstream, if we’re serious about preventing homelessness in the first place. And by broadening this concept of stability, it feels like it creates maybe even more of a pathway for some of those prevention efforts. And I know deeply related to that are questions of equity, which is a good segue into my next question for you, Regina. You’ve been leading a national effort to deepen understanding and action related to racial inequities across housing and homeless services systems. What do we know about the relationship between racism and homelessness?
Regina: [07:20] Well, we know quite a few things. We know certainly that folks of color are disproportionately represented in the homelessness system, but they’re also coming in at a disproportionate rate. And so to your point, Kristen, we’ve got to look back upstream as well. So we’ve got to look at systems like the foster care system, our carceral systems, our healthcare systems, and find out why folks are coming in at these disproportionate rates, and more importantly, what we can do about it. Now let me be clear, that does not in any way absolve our homeless response system for looking at the inequities that we have baked into the policies and the procedures and the assessments that we do on a daily basis. We do our very best to serve those in front of us, but just like every other system, we are riddled with biases and some implicit, perhaps fewer explicit, but those are the kinds of things that we have to tackle as well.
Kristen: [08:12] And it seems like this conversation has really struck a nerve, I think in a good way, in the field of housing and homelessness response. What do you think is driving this interest across the nation in this way? Why now, Regina?
Regina: [08:27] I think the better question perhaps is why not now? These are numbers that have been in plain sight for many, many years, and it’s just recently that we’ve actually begun to understand how many folks that are impacted, how many lives are not being taken care of in the same way that others are. And I think with grassroots organization across the country, with folks saying, “Wait a minute, we’re here too. We want to make sure that our populations are cared for just as others.” So I think the question is why not now? We’ve waited long enough to address issues of race for long enough. In many ways we have talked about gender, we’ve talked about gender identity, we’ve talked about class and everyone’s been holding their breaths. And now we are finally, finally talking about race and racism within the homeless response system. And I’d say it’s about time.
Kristen: [09:18] Long overdue. I would agree. I know there are a lot of factors that go into what created the deep inequities across the system, and some occur at policy and practice and interpersonal levels, and some occur more structurally within institutions and systems and cross system structures. Historically, the policy of red lining has played a major role in driving racial inequities when it comes to affordable housing access for people of color. We know the Fair Housing Act has played an equally important role in beginning to remediate some of the demographic segregation that occurred. What trends are you seeing in how recent administrations have handled fair housing and what it has meant for people of color?
Regina: [10:03] I think past administrations, the recent past administration really used it to amplify the voices of folks of color and to ensure that they were getting the housing treatment that they needed. Recently, there has been a bit of a reversal of that, and several groups are obviously fighting against that. There’s this argument now that has floated around that the Fair Housing Act is actually being used against folks of color. And so it’s incumbent upon us to push back against that notion.
Kristen: [10:31] I want to stay on this thread for a couple more questions because it’s so massive and so critical and so long overdue, as you said. What are some of the effective strategies that communities are putting into place right now to ensure racial equity?
Regina: [10:47] That’s a great question. Right now, a lot of it is starting off with just acknowledging the fact that we do have these racial inequities in our housing policies and even in the way that we are treating folks that are experiencing homelessness. And so I think the first thing is to fully acknowledge that that’s going on, to raise that awareness, and then to begin to train each other on how we can best go about it. Sometimes just the naming of the different policies and saying this has disparate impacts. What would be different? How can we actually pivot to something that has a more equitable impact on those that we’re serving? So the first thing is just to name it, to acknowledge it. And the second is to begin to ask those questions, what could we do differently? And to do the research.
Regina: [11:32] It’s really an interesting notion. Every challenge that we come upon, whether it was Housing First, or trying to implement rapid rehousing, we did the research, we did the work, we put in the time. We had lots of work sessions, and we tried to figure it out. And we’ve got to take that same approach when it comes to looking at racially equitable outcomes and the way that we want to make sure that we’re embedding that in all of our work. So it should be no less work that we put into it. And I think that sometimes we want to jump to the solutions without truly understanding what the problems are around racial equity. And if I may say, our complicity in continuing to perpetuate those racial inequities.
Kristen: [12:13] Thank you. And for our listeners, I will give just a little plug to some recent research that your team put out, looking at documenting some of the disparities in how coordinated entry systems are assessing and responding to housing needs and the disproportionate impact of negative outcomes in housing intervention access for people of color. So, it feels like there is a large hill to climb, but like you said, it’s important to put that research out there and give communities something they can grab onto as they take on this work.
Kristen: [12:45] So, shifting gears a little bit, and looking back over the recent decades, there’s been a lot of federal investment in research and implementation of different models of housing and services, with efforts to understand which models work best for different groups or how best to prioritize housing and service dollars for those that are most vulnerable. I know this is a huge question, but you’ve both been in the field for some time. If you think broadly about some of the shifts you’ve seen over the last 10, 20 years that have been most meaningful, what would you say we’ve learned? What does it really take to ensure housing stability for individuals, families, youth? Ellen, maybe you can lead us off on this one.
Ellen: [13:27] Well, one of the biggest conflicts over the decades that I’ve been in this has been the role of services, and using the HUD definitions, which are housing based, there’s some beliefs that services are unnecessary. The recent family options study, which HUD invested about $5 million in, concluded that psychosocial services were unnecessary. And it was probably based on some of the limitations of the research that supported that view, but there’s still conflict in the field about the role of services. These services matter. And it’s certainly been our experience from day one that services are absolutely critical to solving this problem and to stabilizing families and kids and youth and all the subgroups without services. This is not just about bricks and mortar. It’s about far more, as Regina described, and it’s about multi-systems.
Ellen: [14:37] For example, without adequate education, it’s very, very hard for people to find adequate housing if they can’t earn a livable wage. And there is no place in the country where a person can earn minimum wage working one job and be able to afford a two bedroom apartment, which they would need if they had a kid, for example. So, that is a really big part of the picture.
Ellen: [15:08] The services issue is still not fully integrated into this since a lot of the homelessness or housing instability policies are driven by HUD. So that’s certainly one area that we need to continue to work on and work on fairly aggressively. And Regina brought in the issue of education and employment, which is totally critical to this. I recently heard a homeless mom, or formerly homeless mom, who was working two jobs, living in her mother’s basement, had two kids. And she had literally two full time jobs and was barely making it. Periodically had her utilities shut off. And it had to do with the fact that she was earning close to minimum wage, and she couldn’t make it in this housing market. And in cities like Boston or some of the high rent areas, it’s nearly impossible. So this issue is going to have to be addressed in some far more creative ways than we have to date.
Kristen: [16:24] Regina, what have been some of your observations?
Regina: [16:26] I think that, to Ellen’s point, that we’ve got to make sure that we have services that are connected to the housing so that folks can maintain that. Think of this, when we walk into our homes every single day, think about at least five different ways that we have services around us. Whether it’s we check our mailbox, so that’s a service that we have. When we put out our trash, that’s a service that we have. We can call up this service or that service. And so making sure that we have the services that are needed and that they are culturally responsive. I think we want to make sure that for every population that is experiencing homelessness, that we have the services that actually meets their needs.
Regina: [17:09] And if we can add to that, actually listen to folks who are most impacted. I think that that needs to be the trend. I don’t know that it has fully taken root. We talk a lot about client-centered and being person-centered. But a lot of times it’s just a little bit of lip service because we sit in a room, those of us with these great degrees and positions, and come up with a lot of things when we really need to be out asking those that are most impacted by the work that we’re doing and how can we support them to live the kinds of lives that they want to live. So, I think that that’s a trend that needs to be one.
Regina: [17:44] And then I think the last thing I would say is that putting equity and especially race equity at the center. And we’re at the very, very beginning of that trend. To go through every single policy, to go through every single process, to go through all of the ways that we actually allocate housing to people, whether it be through vouchers or rental assistance, and challenge that with a race equity frame to see are we really making sure that all, all the folks that we serve are getting an equitable opportunity to have the housing stability outcomes that they want for themselves and that we want for them as well.
Ellen: [18:24] I certainly would agree with that. Unfortunately, the current trend seems to be backwards, and there’s been a very frontal challenge to Housing First. Housing First, meaning that housing is right. It’s a human right. It was in the UN Human Rights Commission in the ’40s. We’re one of the countries that have violated that because it’s not a right in this country. And to jump ahead a little bit, the increasing criminalization of homelessness is an example of it. And what’s going to need to go along with it is the way we count homeless people and the definitions that are used, because they label people, they narrow the field, they take it out of the realm of housing stability or housing instability, and only take a look at people who are literally homeless, which is a very small part of the population, although most extreme. But as Regina said, even the wealthiest families need services, have services, all of us have services, and no matter what you call them, they’re present.
Kristen: [19:49] Ellen, you named this really important and critical tension that’s happening right now in the field. The difference between models that have been Housing First oriented that truly put human rights first and ideally put person-centeredness forward are at risk right now. Can you talk a little bit more about what we’re seeing and what that would mean for folks who are facing housing instability or homelessness?
Ellen: [20:16] Well, there have been some dramatic changes at the Federal Interagency Council on Homelessness. And there actually are two encampments now, one in St. Petersburg and I think the other one’s in California, where in order for people to be allowed to enter what looks like a massive shelter, they have to go through various steps, and they have requirements before they can be housed. That goes back 30 years. That’s what we were doing 30 years ago, and that’s completely backwards. I think it’s part of the current divisiveness in this country, the racial divisiveness and divisiveness around poverty, socio economically disadvantaged families, extreme poverty that we’re seeing across the country, that there has been some division that is quite extreme, and we’re beginning to see it in the homeless area. And I think it’s something that we all have to pay attention to. And it’s certainly going to play out in some of the uglier ways around people of color because of the criminalization that’s involved with this.
Regina: [21:34] And just to add to that, Kristen, in the trainings that we do across the country, we encourage people to be race explicit. So I want to do that here and talk a little bit about the backward trends that Ellen is referring to. A lot of that is this notion of paternalism and this notion of charity. And since those folks can’t take care of themselves, then we need to put in place a structure that they need to follow, some hoops that they need to jump through. And so I’ll say this, racism by any other name. And so I think that we’re seeing it playing out over and over, and Ellen is correct that we seem to be going backwards in some of these areas.
Ellen: [22:15] Yeah. One of the things that’s happened is some of the subgroups, the families and children have dropped to the bottom of the barrel, and there’s fewer and fewer resources and less recognition. And because they use the point in time counts, there’s a belief that there has been a dramatic increase in families and kids, which is totally not true. If you talk to local providers around the country, they’re overwhelmed and have difficulties placing families in the community in stable housing and mobilizing appropriate services. And unfortunately, a vast majority of these families are people of color.
Kristen: [22:59] I appreciate you both being so explicit about what you’re seeing and what it is and what your concerns are. I think it’s not at all an understatement, what Ellen said also about this setting us back 30 years. There’s just been good research that has backed up what it takes to take care of people well, and that people know what they need to be well and to find recovery and to find stability and independence. It’s important to say these things out loud. I have a couple more questions before we wind down. Regina, what’s on my mind is a lot of your work these days is focused at the continuum of care level, and it feels like it’s always hard to really find a true continuum of housing options that meet the different needs of people and families and children at different points in their lives. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Regina: [23:54] No, you’re exactly right. Continuum of care, a lot of times they don’t have purview over housing inventory. There are certainly a number of housing they can have through the CoC NOFA through HUD allocation, but that goes back to the importance of having partnerships, partnerships with local real estate agents, partnerships with the property managers, partnerships with the local and county governments that are actually helping folks to build apartments with tax credits, but not requiring them to make sure that many of those places, those units are for low income folks, folks that are making low income. And so I think that that’s exactly it, that CoCs have to continue to have those partnerships and be advocates to say, “You know what? We have got to be a part of the conversation of low-income affordable housing.” And we need that.
Kristen: [24:48] Regina and Ellen, you both spend a lot of time imagining a better way forward for people who are struggling with the trauma of homelessness and housing instability and racism and discrimination. If we had the right resources, practices, leadership, political will, we could eradicate homelessness as we know it. I think we all believe that down to our toes. As we wind down today, I’d like to ask you both your vision for what is most needed right now. Ellen, your focus has been so much on children and families. What can we do next?
Ellen: [25:21] Well, I think the bottom line is there is not an adequate recognition of the seriousness of this problem, and there have not been adequate resources allocated to people experiencing homelessness or housing stability. In fact, the whole spectrum. And it starts off with the fact that HUD is driving this, that it’s housing based alone. It’s not, what Regina said, will require a collaboration of many different systems and agencies to solve all that’s going to be necessary. And instead, what they’re doing is eliminating Housing First, and they’re going backwards, they’re going the wrong way. We need more resources. We need more recognition of the extent of the problem and what it involves. It’s not simply bricks and mortar. It’s bricks and mortar and services and collaboration with multiple agencies, all the way from housing education, employment, and then the range of services.
Ellen: [26:33] I think the involvement needs to be trauma-informed across the board, which we haven’t talked much about, but the traumatic experiences and exposure to violence in this population is incredibly high and needs to be addressed as part of the service package. But most of all, there needs to be a recognition that this should become a primary focus. It hasn’t been discussed in any detail in the presidential debates, which is disappointing, but I think it needs to be one of the major issues that this country confronts is the housing issue, and with it, the racial equity issue.
Kristen: [27:19] Thank you. Regina, what’s ahead from your perspective?
Regina: [27:23] As I look ahead, what I’d really like for us to do is to move from a place of doing our best to doing what’s necessary. See, we’ve been doing what’s best or what we called our best for some decades now. And we’ve made some progress, some really good progress in some places, but I think if we started to frame this around what’s necessary, we can only go down a path of equity, especially race equity. And if we’re doing what’s necessary, then we begin to understand that when we put things in place, when we put policies in place, when we have housing stability for those that are the most marginalized in our communities, those folks of color, then everyone will have the kind of housing stability and the kinds of homes and live the kinds of lives that they want to lead.
Kristen: [28:17] If I’ve learned anything from working with both of you for a while now, it’s been that being well-intentioned is far from good enough. I appreciate, Regina, your focus on results and equity that you brought to this work and the urgency of that. Final question, for our listeners who want to make sure they have a voice in how policy and funding decisions are being made, what do you recommend?
Regina: [28:40] Staying informed. There are so many groups that are coming together to put their efforts together, leveraging each other, that are putting out newsletters. I know it’s a lot of information out there, but choose. Choose one topic that’s really important to you, something that really makes your heart sing, something that you would do if you didn’t even get paid to do it. And get involved, become an advocate. Learn how to get out there and make changes. Go and speak to your legislators. And then look at the work that you’re doing every day and ask yourselves, how can we do this better? How can we do this more equitably?
Kristen: [29:17] Ellen, any last advice?
Ellen: [29:19] Well, I think everybody needs to be made more aware of the existence of this problem. I don’t think that people understand the numbers of, for example, children who are involved in this in the family population. The majority of individuals in homeless families are children below the age of six, and they have their whole lives ahead of them. And with appropriate services, supports of their moms, these kids can grow up and thrive and have full productive lives, but that’s not going to happen in the current system unless we do some of the things that we’ve talked about today. But I think everybody needs to be involved, but I think it begins with awareness. I don’t think the population at large is aware of the severity of this problem and how deep it goes and what it involves. It’s seen as bricks and mortars of a small group of people who are often blamed for their situation, and it’s part of the cycle of poverty that has grown in this country.
Kristen: [30:32] Ellen, thank you for that advice and for being here with me today, and most importantly, for all the work that you’ve done on behalf of children and families who are experiencing homelessness. Thank you.
Ellen: [30:42] It’s been my pleasure to be here today. And thank you, Kristen, for hosting this. It’s been a real honor to be with Regina Cannon, who has done such important work in the area of racial equity and is so visionary about the future.
Kristen: [30:59] You said that really well Ellen. Thank you, Regina, for being here with us today, and as Ellen said, for all of your work to transform the field and the lives of people of color, especially who are experiencing housing instability. Thank you.
Regina: [31:14] Thank you, Kristen, for having me here today and for having these conversations. These are important conversations, and we’re so, so grateful to C4 for having them.
Kristen: [31:22] And to our listeners, thank you for being here with us today. And if you get a moment to pass along this podcast, that might help to pass along some of the education that Ellen and Regina were suggesting. It goes a long way for advocacy.
Erika: [31:36] Visit C4Innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode was produced by Erika Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlon. Our hosts are Jeff Olivet, Kristin Paquette, and Regina Cannon. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.
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