SPARC lights the fire!

   By John Elizalde and Sarabelle Hitchner, First Unitarian Economic Justice Action Group, First Unitarian Committee on Hunger and Homelessness; Interfaith Alliance on Poverty


Portland, Multnomah County, Gresham and a host of others have stepped into the lions’ den according to Mark Dones from the Center for Social Innovation.  Mark was clear at the SPARC Community Kickoff that SPARC is likely to light up the way that our community has social systems, rules and maybe laws that adversely impact people of color and contribute to these people being homeless.  And we’ll need to deal with that reality.


Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities launched in Multnomah County under sponsorship of A Home For Everyone, the municipal and county government partnership to end homelessness in the region.  SPARC will assess and address the ‘stark racial and ethnic disparities found nationally among people experiencing homelessness,’ according to the program brochure.  This means we’ll ‘fundamentally change the conversation we are having about the root causes of housing instability, risk for homelessness and barriers to exiting homelessness for people of color.’  The process brings together policy makers, service providers and people with lived experiences to understand how racism impacts homelessness.


SPARC is an initiative of the Center for Social Innovation (, a 12-year old social change research and consulting group out of Needham, MA.  To date, there are 10 communities around the country in these conversations and making changes.  Whereas homelessness is a national phenomenon, it impacts people locally and must be addressed community by community.


The program kickoff was held March 19 and began a week of intensive program activity that will continue over a 3-year process.    There will be the requisite quantitative analysis of Multnomah County data as well as qualitative study.  Economic Mobility, Housing, Behavioral Health, Criminal Justice, Family Stabilization and Network Impoverishment will be part of the qualitative review.  A thesis could be (and in all likelihood has been) written on each of these features.


Critical for us will be a plan to reach ‘racial equity.’  This means the deliberate policies and practices that provide everyone with the support they need to improve their lives.  In broad terms this means a program that includes on-going anti-racism training, persistent professional development for people of color, full time equity positions in government and service agencies, governing board diversity, anti-racist community efforts and innovative interventions.


A couple of important points came from the panel of experts who spoke at the kickoff. 

  • It is more than poverty that is driving homelessness for people of color.
  • Homeless people know what changes to social systems would improve their circumstances.
  • Outcomes of work are the test of equity, not simply lip service to policy.
  • Listen to people of color and believe them. Folk really do know what their lived experience is.
  • We who are white don’t get to call ourselves allies or accomplices of people of color – they make that call.
  • We of Caucasian heritage live with a different cultural history, memory, and confidence in government-driven change than our neighbors (and government leaders) whose families were interned in WWII, repatriated to Mexico early last century, or suffer the uncertainty around deportation today due to DACA --- for example.
  • If you are having a discussion about race and racism and there isn’t a person of color in the room, something is wrong.


As the song says, ‘we’ve only just begun’ and it seems like a big deal that our community is taking this deep dive into an important realm of our social fabric.


 Kaia Sand, Executive Director, Street Roots stated in her opinion piece  “SPARC-ing conversation on homelessness and race, Street Roots-March 23-29, 2018” -

“Oregon has a history of excluding and displacing people of color.  Federal housing policies, forced relocations of Native people, mid-century termination of some Oregon tribes, exclusionary housing laws, racist real estate practices, planning and policies, terrible terms on housing mortgages and on and on.  And then there’s less to pass on - people of color lose out on intergenerational wealth.  This all impacts housing stability.