As unbelievable as it seems, we are somehow reaching the end of another year. We had hoped the pandemic would be over by now, but alas….. The ongoing pandemic continues to complicate our efforts to end homelessness, but today, I want to focus on the positive things the pandemic has taught us.
First, we learned just how much we could count on you in a crisis. You donated more generously than ever and consistently asked how our staff and clients were coping and what more you could do to help. You enabled us to continue providing essential services to those in need and to do so in ways that kept both our clients and staff safe. Thank you!
Through the Pandemic Emergency Housing for Medically Vulnerable Individuals (PEP-V) program, our city learned what service providers already knew–when we have the will and commit the resources, we can quickly move unhoused individuals indoors, including those who have eschewed shelter for years. Many people living outdoors do not want to go into a congregate shelter for a variety of legitimate reasons including, being unable to bring more than two bags of belongings, poor shelter conditions, unwillingness to live apart from an opposite-sex partner or relinquish a pet, and being overwhelmed in large group settings. When offered a room with no more than one roommate in a PEP-V shelter, however, even those written off by some as “housing resistant” happily moved inside and stayed. It is not shelter or housing that folks resist. It is shelter or housing that does not adequately support their very reasonable needs and preferences. We hope this lesson will be incorporated into the design of our standard shelter and housing programs.
Finally, we learned important lessons about making our services even more client-centered and anti-racist. The pandemic forced homeless services providers to conduct meetings by phone and video and have clients sign documents electronically. We also chose to provide electronic gift cards rather than distributing pantry and household items directly. We quickly realized that these changes made it far more accessible for people to actively participate in our programs and get the kind of support they needed. They no longer had to spend the time, energy, and expense to travel to in-person meetings, sometimes with several small children in tow. They also had the dignity of choosing the best items for them rather than making due with whatever we had on hand or chose for them. This is what it looks like to be client-centered, and we hope to continue these practices as much as possible even after the pandemic finally abates.
Similarly, we chose to provide gift cards rather than school supplies, food baskets, and presents through our Back-to-School, Thanksgiving, and Holiday Gift drives. We knew that this approach was the right one as it centered the clients’ needs and offered them the power to make their own decisions. Our clients could choose what their kids most needed and wanted for school, shop for the ingredients necessary for their particular holiday traditions, and feel the joy of selecting and wrapping gifts for their children–things most of us take for granted. Moreover, giving people cash rather than pre-selected goods intentionally disrupts a system of in-kind giving rooted in and maintained by racist and classist notions that poor people–and especially poor Black people–cannot be trusted to spend money in ways that predominantly white and wealthy donors, institutional funders, and service providers deem responsible.
We had contemplated making this change for some time but feared that our in-kind donors might not participate without the feel-good element of shopping for their sponsored families. The pandemic forced our hand, and I am proud to share that our fears were largely unfounded. Several of you even wrote to us saying how much you appreciated our more client-centered and anti-racist approach. It has been so fulfilling for our team to see that when we lead with our values, our community will not just follow but will enthusiastically cheer us on.
We look forward to a new year where we will continue to look and listen for what this pandemic, our clients, and our community have to teach us. Thank you for taking this journey with us!
With warm wishes for a joyful holiday season,
Everyone Home DC