We’re honored to have brilliant, dedicated Black leaders working to end homelessness in Built for Zero communities around the country. In this series, we’re recognizing some of the Black leaders in the movement to end homelessness.
Vanessa Williams has been working with people experiencing homelessness for over two decades. She currently works as the Grants/HR Officer with California Veterans Assistance Foundation (CVAF) in Bakersfield. She was part of the community-wide team that reached functional zero for chronic homelessness in 2020 — making Bakersfield the first place in California to have ended chronic homelessness.
What are you working on?
Vanessa Williams: My goal is to end veteran homelessness in our community by utilizing federal and local initiatives to ensure our veterans have immediate access to housing. I’m working to include and identify disparities in our homeless system, improve on engaging local leaders in our underserved communities, and promote equitable practices to best serve those experiencing a housing crisis.
How is your community working to address racial equity within their homeless system?
Our Continuum of Care (CoC) has become more responsive in identifying the need to address racial equity at all levels in our homeless response system. Most of the guidance was taken into perspective from Community Solutions, USICH, and our federal funders to begin with a racial equity analysis of ‘“what are we doing to address this topic?’”
Our CoC had made some progressive changes in leadership roles on the Executive Board and Governing Board, organizations promoting lived experience of homelessness and peer support and increasing CoC membership with nontraditional community stakeholders. I’ve heard very inspiring feedback on how the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee provides an opportunity for ‘“a shared, safe space,’” which highlights DEI topics and allows our attendees to share their lived experience moments from their personal or professional lives.
“Racism is not a comfortable topic and we need to continue to promote safe spaces and prepare to be vulnerable. When it comes to homelessness and racism, people do not want to talk about it. “Vanessa Williams
What do people need to understand about racism and homelessness?
Racism is not a comfortable topic and we need to continue to promote safe spaces and prepare to be vulnerable. When it comes to homelessness and racism, people do not want to talk about it.
I’ve noticed that some providers are very outspoken when thinking that they serve underserved populations and that they’ve been doing the work. Their question back is: “why do we need to prioritize racial equity?”. But in reality they never looked at it through the racial equity lens. People need to understand that ‘“traditional methods’” have never really worked. Using a ‘“traditional method’” is the cookie cutter process, and how successful are we housing people using this? Not really. That’s why it’s important to listen to people and understand their cultures and break down these barriers.