C4 Innovations

Redesigning Racially Equitable Homeless Response Systems

An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast

Regina Cannon discusses a demonstration project to redesign racially equitable coordinated entry homeless response systems through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development with host Kristen Harper.

April 19, 2021


Kristen Harper, Host: [00:05] Hello. Welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host today, Kristen Harper, woman in long-term recovery and Recovery Specialist at C4 Innovations. Our topic today is equity and homeless response systems, and our guest is Regina Cannon, Chief Equity and Impact Officer at C4 Innovations. Hey Regina.

Regina Cannon, Guest: [00:24] Hi Kristen. It’s great to be with you today finally.

Kristen: [00:27] I know. I’m so excited to chat with you about this. We’re both Georgia girls, which is amazing to actually get to talk to somebody else that’s here in the state of Georgia, but you’re doing some really cool national work at the federal level, and I have to say that I have been banging my head up against the feds for the last 15 years in trying to get advocacy going for recovery support services in a lot of different domains, especially in education, and you’re doing it in housing. You’re really getting the system to pay attention to the equity needs that they just have not been paying attention to, especially at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.

Kristen: [1:08] Can you tell me a little bit about the history of what you’re doing there with HUD?

Regina: [1:13] It’s interesting you say banging your head against the door. We decided to just kick the door down. Sometimes you just got to get right to it. I tell you, you know what, timing is really everything, and I always say that you can use some of the worst of times to make the best of times. And so this summer as we were going through all of the uprisings, as we were going through COVID and just trying to figure out how to make it through, a lot of people were thinking, “My gosh we’ve got to start thinking more about equity, about justice, about racial equity and how do we get to that.” And of course the homeless response systems, we were no different. And so the timing worked out to go to HUD and talk about how do we begin to make sure that communities understand that they can redesign their systems in ways that are more equitable.

Kristen: [2:02] Can you explain exactly what the homeless response system or network is?

Regina: [2:07] Yes. So, the homeless response network or the homeless response system, it’s really a grouping together of providers, a whole network of people who come together and try to coordinate how folks who are experiencing homelessness, are very precariously housed, can get the kinds of services and the housing interventions that they need.

Kristen: [2:27] That’s wonderful. Thank you. I remember in kind of the height of my active addiction, I experienced homelessness at 19 and was able to find some support services for the interim time before I was able to get into a treatment program. So thank you for the work that you’re doing.

Kristen: [2:44] So talk to us a little bit about the concept behind your demo. Could you tell us a little bit about what you’re doing as far as the pilot program? I’d love to hear about the demo.

Regina: [2:54] In a nutshell, it’s an opportunity for communities to really interrogate their coordinated entry systems and to make sure that at every decision point, they are integrating and thinking about racial equity, asking the questions, who does this benefit, who does this harm, who’s being left out, and how can we do this better to be more inclusive and get to more equitable outcomes.

Regina: [3:22] In the homeless response systems across the country, many, many states have been using tools that we found out were incredibly inequitable. And those tools are so important because they’re the ones that actually match folks to the kinds of services and housing they need. And so when you’re doing an assessment, and it’s an inequitable assessment, it’s not picking up on the experiences and the conditions and the backgrounds of folks of color, you end up with what we would say down South, a good, hot mess.

Regina: [3:55] And so we said, “Gosh, there’s got to be a way that we can actually move away from all of these inequitable tools, to get into a place where we can have more equitable and inclusive processes to work with people, building on their strengths and centering their experiences and needs.”

Kristen: [4:14] So after you identified this huge issue, and you probably went also, as we say in the South, a little bit of “bless their hearts,” right? We need to fix this. Can you tell me how y’all decided to move forward with solutions?

Regina: [4:27] We decided to propose a demonstration project to HUD to say, “If we can work with about eight communities and walk them through actually a redesigned process, a homeless response system for coordinated entry system.” And basically, it’s about four components, Kristen. You start with the engagement period where you’re outreaching to people, or people are coming into shelters or places where they believe that they can get some help and support. And then there’s a part where you’re actually trying to assess, what are the needs? What’s going on? How can we be of help? And then you find the matching part like, so what’s out there? What can we either refer you to or make sure that you have the connection to? And then of course there’s actually the housing stability. And so that was the system that we wanted to make sure was being equitable, that was being inclusive.

Regina: [5:16] And so we offered this demonstration project to HUD. It was two things that we were going to center, Kristen, and we were not going to back down. We said, “This demonstration project is going to center on one, racial equity and two, the brilliance, the voices and gifts of those who have lived experience of homelessness.” And then we began to work through it, building out a coaching team, recruiting communities to work alongside us to do this, to see if we could actually redesign a coordinated entry system, interrogate all of those places where inequity is rearing its ugly head.

Kristen: [5:53] Talk to me a little bit about the coaches. That sounds really exciting, and the folks with lived experience.

Regina: [6:01] It was, and it is, Kristen. So look, here’s the deal. You’ve been in working with federal government, right? And there’s a way that the federal government does TA [technical assistance]. You sort of swoop in as an expert because you think you know some stuff, but we turned that on his head, and we said “you know who’s the real expert? It’s the community. And those with lived experience of homelessness,” and yes, we bring a technical aspect. So we are there as sort of the guides and facilitators, but we really wanted to make sure that the coaches knew that you didn’t have to go in and be this great expert, go in with the things that you were really good at. So if you knew about different kinds of grants or how to get funding or how this process works, that’s enough. Let the community lead, let those voices of lived experience lead. So we really turned that TA on its head.

Kristen: [6:55] And Regina, can you tell us a little bit more about how you’re centering the voices of folks with lived experience?

Regina: [6:59] That’s something that sort of kept us up at night because we wanted to make sure that folks with lived experience of homelessness were not only on our coaching team, but on every team in those eight communities that we were working with for the demonstration project, but we didn’t want to tokenize folks. And so we began to develop in our program ways that we could support folks with lived experience to be a part of the entire process. So, a couple of things that we did. We made sure that they had support and compensation, which is very important because I think a lot of times we get so busy giving out a $5 gift card. Well, no. We need to compensate fully folks for their brilliance and their time and their expertise.

Regina: [7:59] We also built in, actually de-jargonizing. Sometimes all of the jargon, especially at the federal level, it can be intimidating, and it’s a way of sort of holding power. And so we made sure that we were walking people through, like this is what this means, because guess what, they use the systems, but we have all of these fancy names and acronyms and alphabet soup. And so to make sure that that wasn’t a place of intimidation. And then walking people through what to expect, that helping them to understand that you don’t have to come in and tell your story. It’s not that kind of party. That we want your expertise of a system to help us build it better. And so those are some of the things that we worked on, and we continue to try to get better and better listening to them to say, what do you need to be fully and fully engaged and involved with us?

Kristen: [8:49] Wow, I wish we could replicate that in some of the other departments and offices up there in DC, what a fantastic process. And I bet with any sort of implementation or a new program development, there was probably some mishaps or mistakes. Do you have any stories about some of your mess-ups that you’d like to share with the listenership?

Regina: [9:08] Well, if you insist Kristen, absolutely. Of course. Well, let me put it in a little bit of context, Kristen. You see, when we first started this with the coaches and this process, we said, we’ve got to have some values and some principles that we keep coming back to. And one of those values that we came up with is that we would course correct. That not only would we make mistakes, we would make them in public, and we would admit them in public, and we will course correct in public. And so let me share with you one of the sort of, course corrections that we’ve had to do at the very beginning of the project. And so this was around our data and the folks that were working with us all brilliant. But we started looking at the Zoom screen one day, and we said, huh, all of our data folks are white. Well, how the heck did that happen?

Regina: [10:00] And so it’s that notion when you just reach out to folks that you’ve always been working with without casting a more inclusive net. And so we had to back up and course correct, because we had to have the experiences of all folks who were part of the data team as well as the coaching team. And so we were able to bring in additional, incredibly brilliant folks who had great experience with data who were also folks of color and had different backgrounds and experiences. And so now our data team is untouchable. One of the best data teams around…

Kristen: [10:34] What are some of the things that you’re uncovering from the community perspective? I’d love to see, there’s got to be some stark differences between what is coming down from the fed’s perspective, from that macro kind of on the hilltop, right? And then actually what’s happening on the ground within the local communities. Just talk to me a little bit about what they’re telling you.

Regina: [10:57] Let me take you back just a little bit, Kristen. So you remember about, I guess maybe four or five years ago, there is a lot, a lot of talk about racial equity in the homelessness community and folks were just starting to sort of disaggregate their data, but they weren’t really doing anything after that, because think about it. We hadn’t been challenged to really operationalize racial equity within the homelessness system, right? And Kristen, we made a really poor assumption. We thought that communities were a little bit further along in operationalizing racial equity. And they said, “No, these are things that we’ve never had to do.” And so we said, “No worries. We’re going to do this alongside you.”

Regina: [11:39] So what we introduced as part of this demonstration project is what we call cultural shifts, knowledge bites. And so we actually got to do trainings around cultural humility, racial trauma-informed care, the power of words; oh my gosh, collective care. And think about this Kristen, this hadn’t been done as part of TA because you go in with your spreadsheets and all of your technical frameworks. So this was a very different approach to say, you know what, there are some adaptive things that we need to do. It’s sort of like if you have a garden, and you’ve got to sort of till the soil, well, that’s what we were doing with these knowledge bites. We were sort of tilling that soil so that racial equity actually had a place to grow and to flourish. And then we began to talk about changing the framework and the technical aspects, but the cultural part had to come first, and everyone hadn’t had an opportunity to do that kind of learning yet. And so we were pleased to be able to offer that to the demonstration communities.

Kristen: [12:44] What’s the feedback or the relationship been like with the POs [project officers] or some of the HUD folks as you work through this new model?

Regina: [12:52] Ooh. So at every stage, we were listening for or are watching for the red phone call, and it never came, thank goodness, but I tell you, it has been a wonderful and absolutely wonderful reception of doing this kind of work. Now, let me be clear. I think it’s still a little bit scary for some of the folks at HUD and in the SNAP’s office at all, because this is very different. And we’ve always thought about measurements in a very different way and how we measure success and impact in different communities, especially around homelessness. And so this is a different way of coming at it. It’s really saying that we want to do two things. We want to make sure that we are always, always trying to find a safe housing for everyone. And though Kristen, we understand something, that Black and brown folks are disproportionately represented in homelessness.

Regina: [13:45] And so we wanted to have very targeted strategies to go after that disproportionality. And so this is a little bit different than the traditional hard work. And so we had to sort of make sure that everybody came along with us and understood that we weren’t breaking any rules, but that we were actually through this, that we were going to actually get to ending homelessness quicker. Because if you do not solve homelessness for Black and brown folks, you will not solve homelessness for other folks. That’s just the basics of it. And so I still think that there’s a lot of work to be done within HUD, but they have been absolutely amazing to give us sort of the, I don’t know, the space to do this kind of work and to really try it out.

Kristen: [14:31] Well, that really speaks a lot to your work over the past 20 years, that you’ve gotten the attention and the trust to move forward with this initiative. So I think that that’s amazing. I actually cannot let you go without asking you about what’s going on in Georgia, especially with the emergence of finally publicly recognizing strong female Black leadership within Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and then we have also Stacy Abrams here in Georgia. And so I just wanted to ask you what is it like to be here in Georgia and to be a Black woman finally watching some of these incredible women get recognized finally after all of their work all of these years.

Regina: [15:15] Oh, Kristen, it feels amazing. It is long overdue. Let’s be clear, Black women have been doing the work for so so many years, and they’ve really never gotten the recognition or been in positions of power and decision-making that they always should have been, that we always should have been in. So it has been truly amazing to see that the rest of the country now realizes the kind of power, the kind of brilliance, the kind of creativity that we can bring to every single aspect of the nation’s life. So it’s been a thrill.

Kristen: [15:53] Uh-huh [affirmative]. Yes. It’s also been, I feel like there’s finally the shift from, in our realm within the recovery advocacy world, we’ve over the years, similarly been sort of symbolically placed onto panels or onto round tables that decisions were being made, but we’re never actually empowered to be part of that decision-making process. And I see that that hopefully is finally shifting in racial equity work. And so it speaks a lot to what they’ve done and what you’re doing and just, what do you see as next steps in the process for that sort of full adoption of empowerment?

Regina: [16:31] Kristen, that’s the question: How do we make sure that this is sustained? Because you’re so right. We’ve got to make sure that that’s sustained. We don’t want this to be a moment. It’s very easy to fall back into their old patterns of just putting people at the table in very tokenistic positions, that proximity to power, but not real power and that cannot continue. So we need to make sure that we continue to support black women and women of color in being in those leadership and decision-making positions. And we need our allies to support that as well.

Kristen: [17:06] Yeah. Thank you so much, Regina. I’m excited because I think you have podcasts coming up, right? That you’re going to invite some of the coaches from the HUD demo project?

Regina: [17:16] Yes, I am so looking forward to that so that we can really get into some of the lessons that we have learned, because I don’t think that they are just for the homelessness community. They are across the board and how you really center community, be led by community, and especially be led by those that are most impacted. Sometimes we sort of give that short shrift. We throw around, well, gosh, let’s be client-centered or person-centered, but we don’t really mean it, because we walk in with our own agenda and how we want to do things, but we have to learn to stop and do some deep listening and make sure that we’re actually responding to community. So I am so excited to bring on some of the coaches and talk about what that process was like to step into a different kind of role and also the lessons that we learned along the way, the mistakes that we made, how we corrected those mistakes and the work going forward.

Kristen: [18:15] So Regina, just one final question with the immense amount of emotional labor and brilliance that you put into all of your projects, how are you taking care of yourself and what’s, what’s keeping you going?

Regina: [18:29] Sometimes the days are really long, and it can be emotionally exhausting, but it’s also invigorating. This is the work of a lifetime. I believe, and have believed for many years that racial equity is the work. That if we fully embrace racial equity, everything else will begin to fall in place. That’s the centerpiece because of how this country was built, how so many of our systems were built. And so every time, Kristen, every time that I’m doing this work, I get so excited, and I’m so grateful to be doing this work, to be a part of supporting communities of color that have never had a voice, that are trying to rebuild better communities, that are trying to move to safe and stable housing. That’s what keeps me going, Kristen. So even if those nights are long, and you get a little bit exhausted, I just have to remember that I have the privilege, the privilege, of working alongside folks, doing this work and helping to build better communities, better housing. It just doesn’t get much better, Kristen. It doesn’t.

Kristen: [19:43] Well, you are a true inspiration. If folks want to know more about the demo or maybe even bring it to their own community, how do they do that?

Regina: [19:51] They can reach out to me at rcannon@c4innovates.com. We’re happy to even do a presentation of sort of lessons learned from Cohort One Demonstration project. And we’re also using this model as a part of our C4 Racial Equity work. So we’d love to hear from folks.

Kristen: [20:07] Thank you so much for your time and sharing a little bit of a peek into your world. And again, it’s nice to have somebody that’s just so close to me right down the road to chat with that’s doing such amazing work. Oh and Regina, I heard that we’re starting Morning Cup of Equity again on Fridays. So I’ve got my coffee cup, and I’m going to be bringing my coffee with me to hear your brilliance.

Regina: [20:29] And some Fridays, Kristen, you may have to have that whole pot of coffee, not just a cup. It’s been a pleasure, Kristen. And we got to get together soon and get some grits, okay?

Kristen: [20:40] We sure do. And to our listeners, join us next time on Changing the Conversation.

Erika Simon, Producer: [20:46] Visit c4innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube 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 Hanon. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.


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