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In Tacoma, A Frank Conversation About Race And Homelessness

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Molly Richard
/
Center for Social Innovation
Tacoma Poet Laureate Cathy Nguyen and Marquis McCrary perform spoken-word poetry at a forum on race and homelessness on Dec. 5, 2016.

Homelessness and race are intertwined in ways experts don't fully understand. One example: African-Americans are vastly over-represented among the homeless, even when differing poverty rates among racial groups are accounted for.

Housing advocates gathered in Tacoma on Monday for a forum aimed at untangling the issues. Discussions focused on the legacy of discriminatory Great Depression-era housing policies such as "redlining." Experts say they left African-American families with far less wealth — and ultimately fewer financial and social safety nets -- than whites.

"What we have done in this country is create a race of renters," said Marc Dones, an analyst for a research and consulting company called the Center for Social Innovation. "We are always one catastrophic event away from homelessness."

The Center for Social Innovation, based in Massachusetts, organized the forum at the Urban Grace Church in downtown Tacoma. It was part of a 10-community study on race and homelessness in which Tacoma and Pierce County were joint participants.

Twenty-four-year-old Marquis McCrary said he spent about a year living among the homeless in Tacoma. In a poem he read before several dozen housing experts and advocates, he sought to convey what it felt like to be homeless and black. 

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Marquis McCrary, 24, reads a poem he wrote about his experience of homelessness in Tacoma during a Dec. 5, 2016 forum at Urban Grace Church.

McCrary said he got into a housing program several weeks ago. He said small financial setbacks, or even emotional trauma, are enough to send someone spiraling into homelessness. He compared it to a football player missing a field goal.

"You have a simple job; you do it all the time; you know what it takes to get there," he said. "But for some reason, the moment you kick the ball, there's a big gust of wind. There can be a big ray of light that blinds you a little bit." 

Will James reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. He created and hosted the Outsiders podcast, chronicling homelessness in Olympia for more than a year, in partnership with The Seattle Times.