Bramson: Housing, race and professional responsibility
A homeless man sits on the corner of Third and Santa Clara streets in downtown San Jose. File photo.

For most of my career, I’ve worked on issues related to affordable housing and homelessness. It was never a pursuit that I dreamed of growing up, but coming from a family that struggled with poverty and housing insecurity at times, I’ve been close to these topics one way or another for most of my life.

Working as a housing professional has a few glorious peaks and many more valleys. When you succeed, you’ve helped change people’s lives, improved the way the system works and built a better and more just community for everyone. But more often than not, you come up short and watch a tidal wave of need overtake all of the progress.

I suppose I’m used to failure and not doing enough to help people who need support the most. You tell yourself you’re doing everything you can, but know in your heart it’s insufficient and you should be doing more. You can square it up at the end of the day by saying at least your intentions are pure, your motives are good. Trying to make the world a better place or something like that.

But, in the wake of the tragic murder of George Floyd, I find myself thinking more about how I might be a part of the problem instead of the solution.

You see, housing and homelessness are inextricably linked to race. From discriminatory housing policies that have kept people of color from owning homes and building wealth for generations to a safety net and criminal justice system that is cracked in all the wrong places depending on the color of your skin, the truth is our entire Silicon Valley existence is geared toward putting black and brown folks on the street.

You would think knowing this might be very important for someone working to supposedly end homelessness. But ask me to name one program or initiative that I’ve personally put forward to address, or even look at, racial disproportionality in the homeless population. Ask me how I’ve pushed for housing policies to open doors for people of color. Ask me how I’ve created more diversity in this field.

Guess what? I don’t have any good answers. Some combination of fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, ignorance about what the issues really are and internal conflict about what my role really should be held me back, but that’s no excuse.

For a long time, I thought that by focusing on the issue of “housing for all” I was somehow exempt from thinking about race. My purpose was a higher one with the vision of making sure everyone had a roof over their head. I thought this gave me a pass because I was a good guy doing something to help people in need.

But all of this was really just a smokescreen. The truth is I’ve never felt comfortable talking about race and the inequities all around us because I didn’t – and still don’t – have the words. But the very core of my housing and homelessness work and its big, lofty goals are outright impossible without confronting the social injustices we see everyday head on.

Racism, white supremacy, privilege, fragility. It is all part of a machine that crushes the future of so many people and leaves them dying outside.

I still don’t know exactly what I can do going forward, but I know I can’t ignore it anymore.

San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.

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