Intentional partnerships to overcome barriers: a case study in undoing institutional racism

Imagine you are an immigrant, maybe a refugee from a war-torn part of the world. You’ve made your way to Seattle to make a new life and you are temporarily living with a relative.

Camping out with your family in a living room in South Seattle might well feel safer than where you left. But, you are still in unstable housing. And while you are eligible to receive financial and practical support through local housing stabilization programs, how would you even know?

Immigrants and refugees living doubled up with family members are an underserved population, facing multiple barriers to getting the resources and services they need to stabilize their lives. Barriers can include limited English proficiency, fear of governmental institutions, lack of information about available resources and others. Often times the resources exist, through homeless prevention programs in the community that can be accessed through community phone systems. Unfortunately, the 2-1-1 Community Information Line that serves as the centralized entry point for these and similar programs in King County can also be a significant barrier to accessing the services.

In an effort to reach out to these and other underserved populations, Solid Ground’s Homeless Prevention Programs have for the past year worked to develop “intentional partnerships” with community-based agencies actively involved in immigrant communities, the LGBTQ community, domestic violence survivors and other marginalized populations.

“A part of our intention was to build partnerships where we are able to reach out to marginalized populations who might otherwise fall through the cracks, and who may never have accessed social service systems,” said Sukanya Pani, of Solid Ground’s Seattle Housing Stabilization Services (Seattle HSS).

Grounding in principles of  undoing racism

The effort to reach clients through these intentional community partnerships is a part of the mission of each of the six separate Homeless Prevention Programs (HPP) at Solid Ground. The initiative is linked closely to Solid Ground’s efforts to undo institutional racism in our organization and in our community.

“We decided to reach out intentionally to build partnerships to reach clients who faced barriers to accessing our services,” related Sukanya. “At that point in time we had to step back and think, how would these partnerships work?

“We realized that as programs we had limited resources. And we asked ourselves, how best can we serve the community? How best can we serve people who are in need? We were not looking at other agencies, we were looking at the community and clients.”

At that point, the HPP programs developed a set of anti-racist Guiding Principles, based on Solid Ground’s Anti-Racism Initiative.

“Based on those guiding principles, we started thinking about partnerships that would make sure that we were able to reach out to these groups,” Sukanya said. “We partnered with grassroots agencies who might not have the kind of funding we have for housing programs. … We built a list of clients we thought were a priority because they were from marginalized groups, groups who normally didn’t have access to these programs.”

While Solid Ground programs have traditionally done community outreach, historically that has often been limited to making presentations and sending out materials. This new effort goes much further – into developing real relationships with groups working in marginalized communities.

“We are having a dialogue: ‘What resources do we have? What resources does the other agency have? How can we collaborate to give the best services and improved coordination of services to clients?’ ” Sukanya said.

The 2-1-1 Community Information Line can be a significant barrier for people from marginalized communities.

“We realized early on that there are communities which are not accessing the 2-1-1 line. … Hotlines can be a barrier for people with limited English, people with disabilities, veterans and people who have had difficulty navigating systems,” Sukanya said.

The 2-1-1 line “has a limited capacity to assess the imminent risk of housing loss,” Sukanya said.  But school workers, case managers at community-based agencies and others working with marginalized people will have a much more complete understanding of the risks they face and resources they need.

In addition, quirks of cell phone service can create additional barriers to accessing 2-1-1. “I have a cell phone with the area code 253, and when I dialed the 2-1-1 network, they gave me resources for the Pierce County/South King County area, which I didn’t know at the time,” reported one Seattle-based client through a City-run focus group gaining consumer feedback on the program.

While Seattle HSS was designed to use 2-1-1 as the primary intake mechanism, during 2010 about 65% of people who accessed its services came through partner agencies, rather than 2-1-1.

In fact, 90% of referrals for households living with other family members or friends were made by partner agencies. “People who are doubling up are not calling 2-1-1,” Sukanya said. Additionally, 73% of immigrant and refugee households served came through partner agencies.

“One of the big barriers to access 2-1-1 is that people had to call and then they were given another phone number, and on a Friday they had to call that number to get an appointment. When they were given the number their hopes just increased, thinking they would get an appointment. What they didn’t realize was that for every 10 appointments in the City of  Seattle for different housing stabilization programs, there are hundreds of calls coming in. So, really your chances of getting an appointment were almost slim to none. And the multiple calls that they had to place really did create barriers for people who are marginalized. It is already difficult for a person with limited English to access the system; now you are making them access it a few times and putting them through that,” Sukanya said.

Sharing the model

Earlier this month, the HPP programs presented on this initiative to the Washington State Coalition for the Homeless‘ 21st Annual Conference on Ending Homelessness in Kennewick, WA. Through their workshop they shared experiences and dialogued with providers and governmental agencies throughout the state.

Among the takeaways from those discussions:

  • Building partnerships takes time and energy that some agencies do not have.
  • We are still learning about the barriers that single-entry-point systems like 2-1-1 may create and are discussing how to overcome them.
  • A competitive funding climate can cause challenges to establishing trusting relationships.

The HPP programs will continue to seek feedback from community partners and refine their collaborative efforts. The bottom line, of course, is helping families avoid homelessness and regain stability. As these brief quotes from clients attending the focus group attest, the programs are having an important impact:

“I came to Solid Ground about two steps away from being homeless — it was like being upside down. I can’t stress enough how Solid Ground has helped me — it’s been like turning a corner in my life.”

“Solid Ground gives homeless people the opportunity to get into a position to be self-sufficient, not just to get through next week.”

“If it wasn’t for the help that Solid Ground was able to give me, I would have lost everything. It was just me; there was no one else.”

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