Our fight against racism, homelessness starts early

23466564-mmmainby Margaret Mitchell, President and CEO of YWCA of Greater Cleveland.

In some ways, it seems that racial tension in our society is more visible than it has been in decades. The recent and regrettable events in Charlottesville demonstrate that blatant hatred and resentment of those who are different still very much exist in our world. Racism is visible on the faces of those who marched on behalf of white supremacy, visible in ways we might like to pretend ended many years ago.

But racism can also be invisible. And in many ways, invisible racism can be more insidious than when we’re staring it in the face.

For those who live in homelessness, or those on the edge of homelessness, every day, we may not see racism as a cause, but the numbers do not lie. A disproportionate number of homeless adults are people of color–nearly 83 percent. These numbers leave little room to doubt that biases against African Americans and other minorities are systemic across different social systems, and these biases have revealed themselves in the make-up of Cleveland’s homeless population. Racism as it affects the homeless population in our city, and our country, is easy to identify, even if it is hard to talk about.

There are, of course, additional factors at play. My work as president and CEO of the YWCA of Greater Cleveland has been driven by a simple, important mission: “Eliminating racism. Empowering women.” Part of our work toward those goals over the past several years has been to target homelessness early, where gaps in our social system have resulted in the abandonment of some of our most vulnerable members the moment they turn legal age.

Homelessness thrives among young men and women who are tossed out of foster care and onto the streets on their 18th birthday. From there, many are left with no other option than homeless shelters, where finding a way out of the vicious cycle of homelessness is near impossible. The YWCA has worked to make an impact. In January 2011, we opened Independence Place in our downtown headquarters at East 40th St. and Prospect Ave. We maintain 23 permanent supportive housing apartments, specifically for people ages 18-24 who are coming from homelessness. It remains one of the few initiatives in the country to focus on homeless youth with a history of foster care.

Here, the numbers don’t lie either. Eighty-eight percent of those who have come through our doors at Independence Place are African American.

There are no simple solutions to ending the disproportionate nature of our homeless population. But the YWCA is committed to making an impact, and we believe it begins at the individual level. We center on youth, one young person at a time. We see individuals who are full of promise and hope. The stories we hear are heartbreaking, but their triumphs are powerful and heartwarming. We don’t have fairy dust. There are no frogs to be kissed or chariots to ride off into the sunset. Life is more complex–and more rewarding–than that.

Once again, we think our impact can be seen in the numbers: In 2016, after five years of operation, 85 percent of Independence Place residents had maintained their positive transitions into the community; 15% had a negative departure, with only 3% returning to homelessness. While any return to homelessness is unacceptable, we’re proud of these figures–and we hope to improve them.

Our efforts continue, and we’re approaching one of our most important fundraising efforts of the year: YWCA’s annual Circle Event. We’re joined this year by Honorary Chair Savannah James and distinguished speaker Leigh Anne Tuohy who will talk further about racism, homelessness…and hope.

This year’s theme for our Circle Event is “Hope Is All Around.” It demonstrates what’s possible when we all help.

Dismantling racism and ending homelessness in our communities is possible when we determine daily to see the potential in all people and not just categorized sad statistics– when you see: It really begins with me. Tickets for The YWCA Circle Event are available at www.ywcaofcleveland.org.

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