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Racism, Homelessness, and DreamKit

June 22, 2020
by Marina Marmolejo

In order to effectively end mass homelessness, we must first address structural racism.

If we fix the homelessness crisis for Black people, we’ll fix it for everyone. Why do Black people make up only 13% of the U.S. population, but represent 40% of the homeless population? It’s because of systemic racism, discrimination and oppression. Even when controlling for poverty, Black Americans are dramatically more likely than Whites to become homeless.

This is not an accident. The systems that were created to help people secure housing were not designed to support Black families. Policies like exclusionary zoning (i.e. redlining) and unjust lending practices have perpetuated generational poverty within the Black community. If we do not radically disrupt the homelessness pipeline caused by racist policies, institutions and societal thinking, then we are sentencing Black Americans to lives of unimaginable poverty, devastating health outcomes and premature death.

Today, more than ever, we are seeking innovations that advance the health, happiness and economic and social advancement of Black lives. As an alumna of the Yale School of Public Health, I have taken responsibility for this societal necessity, and with the support of hundreds of New Haven community leaders, Yale students and youths who have experienced homelessness, we’ve created a solution known as DreamKit.

DreamKit is an app that directly supports people under 25 years old who are either unstably housed or at risk of homelessness. All of our members are experiencing insecurity of basic needs, and in their fight for daily survival, they do not have the time or resources to build lasting and meaningful relationships with the community. DreamKit attempts to address these issues by connecting youth with virtual activities, rewarding their growth and sharing their progress with the community.

Traditional programs that feature skill building activities require people to pay to participate, but DreamKit recognizes that the financial barrier behind costly programming limits our youth’s ability to participate. Instead, we pay youth for every DreamKit activity they complete. These activities introduce them to new skills around employment and education readiness, emotional intelligence and personal development. Our members build a virtual profile that reflects their individual growth and newfound skillsets, which is our attempt to reduce stigma around youth homelessness and create a positive narrative behind youth resilience. We then share their profiles with gatekeepers (i.e., employers, landlords, and mentors) in the community who can help youth escape homelessness.

We recognize that although we have Yale students, staff and New Haven community members on our team, we are not the experts – youth who have experienced homelessness are. That’s why we constantly seek the advice of our Youth Specialists to ensure that we are building a product that directly reflects the needs of the community. Representation matters, which is why to date 100% of our Youth Specialists are Black, beautiful and brilliant.

With recent earnings from Startup Yale’s New Haven Civic Innovation Prize and crowdsourcing efforts, we now have $10,000 to support our pilot program. With over 300 activity submissions on DreamKit thus far, it is clear that we have the infrastructure, team, and youth participation we need to ensure our success.

Our community needs us right now more than ever. Addressing systemic homelessness disproportionately affecting Black people is a vital step forward in improving Black lives and breaking down the racism that sickens our culture and our communities.

We cannot and will not fail.

Marina Marmolejo, M.P.H. ’19, is co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of DreamKit.

This is part of a series of essays by Yale School of Public Health faculty, alumni and students on the issues of race and racism in the United States following the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests against police brutality throughout the United States. We remember, too, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and countless Americans who came before.

See other essays in this series and related material in the Public Health Crisis of Racism section on the YSPH website.

Submitted by Sayuri Gavaskar on June 22, 2020