Amy S. Duggan, Senior Program Officer, The Colorado Health Foundation
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has wreaked havoc on health care systems, crippled economies, and amplified barriers to affordable housing for millions across the country. Like a tsunami, the virus has engulfed one community to the next—and in the wreckage further exposed a society built on broken systems. The pandemic has blatantly exposed the longstanding inequities in America due to institutional and systemic racism that people of color have experienced for far too long. It has brought to light the need to urgently rethink and reorient our role in reimaging the affordable housing sector—one that brings health in reach for all.
Housing is Health
At The Colorado Health Foundation, we know that housing and health are inextricably linked. A safe, affordable, and high-quality home is the foundation for which good health outcomes can be achieved. Where we call home affects our physical health and our economic and employment opportunities, educational attainment, access to healthy foods and transportation, as well as other vital community resources. The quality of our health depends on the quality and affordability of our housing.
Before COVID-19, structural racism in our nation’s housing system contributed to stark and persistent inequities. Over the past decade, Colorado’s housing market has become unaffordable to many of the state’s residents living with low incomes. When it comes to the pandemic, a recent poll shows that people of color, people living with low incomes (making $30,000 or less), and women are more likely to say the worst is yet to come (The Colorado Health Foundation 2020). In the wake of COVID-19, these barriers are further exacerbated, which will undoubtedly lead to greater health inequities. This housing crisis will only deepen the many health inequities at work if not immediately and intentionally addressed.
Rethinking our Approach
Everything we do at the foundation is with an eye and ear toward community, and with equity at the heart of our work. In the midst of this unprecedented crisis, we know it is imperative to better understand the perspectives and needs of those that are most disproportionally affected. We are trying to find new ways to stay connected and to ground our approach in listening first, acting second, and listening again.
As COVID-19 hit Colorado in mid-March, homeless shelters that were already stretched to meet demand were forced to respond to unprecedented circumstances. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention provided guidance that was difficult to navigate and implement. Demand for immediate support was clear, yet federal and state emergency funding was not accessible. Organizations faced greater demands and unique needs. They needed to serve more people while having to de-densify shelters to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure. Daily needs like masks and other personal protective equipment were not readily available for homeless shelter staff or guests. People who live outside had even less access to trusted information, masks, and sanitation stations to reduce their exposure.
In a rapidly evolving crisis, the foundation recognized a need to hold space for providers to come together and learn, adapt their practices, and be part of a supportive peer community. We organized a statewide call with homeless services providers and the State Division of Housing. We listened to their experiences, needs, and proposed solutions for people without housing and learned where social distancing is impossible. During that call, providers outlined immediate and short-term needs, mid-term needs and long-term needs.
At the same time, the foundation’s internal housing team was rethinking the vision for our work. We were reexamining key assumptions, and discussing challenges and ideas for deepening our community engagement practices and racial equity dimensions of our work. Basically, we were asking ourselves what we need to do to move beyond an affordability focus in housing to a core belief that Coloradans facing unfair barriers to safe, stable, and affordable housing must have the power to shape and achieve the housing solutions they deserve.
Immediate and Short-term Needs – Within the First Two Months
Finding a way to provide essential supports to people that did not have stable housing was an urgent focus. In Colorado, Governor Polis issued a stay-at-home order that extended from March 29 through April 26, 2020. This order did not take into consideration the lack of infrastructure for those who are homeless or living outside—individuals who often suffer from multiple chronic health issues including mental health, diabetes, and substance use challenges and have experienced significant trauma.
In order to address the many issues that organizations and agencies faced in trying to coordinate and meet needs during this time, the foundation continued to facilitate an ongoing series of calls with statewide providers to establish a much needed platform where they could share concerns, practices, and strategies during this chaotic and challenging time. It also provided a space for the foundation to seed conversations about racial inequities that need to be prioritized for any long-term solutions.
Mid-term Needs – Three to Nine Months
In addition to meeting on-the-ground needs, we heard there was interest in policy and advocacy efforts in the near term that could have significant impacts on stabilizing housing for low income renters as well as more effectively serve people experiencing homelessness. There was interest in building a broader coalition that could help guide and support advocacy-related activities.
Long-term Needs – One to Two Years
As we think about the next few years, we recognize there will be a need for general operating support due to the impact COVID-19 has on shrinking revenue channels. The foundation’s strategy will need to focus on housing policy and permanent opportunities that address racial equity and the needs of those most impacted.
Reorienting our Work
Knowing that COVID-19 caused programmatic and financial uncertainty, the foundation modified existing grant agreements to help grantees meet urgent and evolving needs of the communities. Those included the suspension of reporting requirements, the provision of no-cost extensions, and added flexibility to project and capacity building grants.
The foundation also embraced the concept of nimbleness and created a donation channel to expedite needed funding into Colorado communities. Donations were designed to support organizations focused on individuals and families experiencing homelessness, those advocating for tenant rights and eviction prevention, and low-income housing provider technical assistance across the state.
We challenged ourselves to think differently and to do things differently. Our partnership with the Latino Community Foundation of Colorado (LCRC) is one example of how we lived into this challenge. Beyond the previously mentioned donations, there arose a clear need for cash assistance to increase economic stability for immigrants and refugees across the state. Many people living in Colorado lack access to state and federal rent assistance, unemployment, and federal stimulus checks due to informal work situations or lack of documentation.
We approached LCRC, which helped us identify nonprofit and community partners who have trusted relationships with communities that would benefit most from direct cash assistance services. We were able to better understand the capacity and overall ability of smaller organizations to distribute funds in a manner that was new to the foundation. Through this partnership, we were able to leverage LCFC’s expertise to provide funding support for Colorado-based grassroots organizations that have a low- barrier process to distribute direct cash assistance to those who need it most, at a time when it was needed most.
Reimagining our future
Like many other foundations, we are navigating this crisis in ways that position us to have stronger, more authentic relationships so we can better work with impacted communities throughout the state. Through this, we hope to glean insight into how inequities—and housing challenges that arise out of them—have been intensified, with a specific focus on people of color living with low incomes. We are deepening our racial equity strategies, knowing that long held practices in this country put Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color unfairly at risk of rent and mortgage burdens and homelessness. We know the work has only just begun.
Above all, we value people. We value lived experience and the expertise that individuals who have experienced homelessness have to share. We know we must follow the lead of communities when it comes to creating the changes they need and deserve. We know we must reimagine how to bring safe, affordable and high-quality housing in reach for all.
The Colorado Health Foundation. “Coloradans’ Concerns, Needs and Experiences During the Coronavirus Outbreak.” Accessed July 3, 2020.