Solving Issues With the Unhoused: A Conversation With Rinal Ray

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Rinal Ray. Photo Sarah Whiting

I am the oldest daughter of four in an Indian American family. I grew up in the Chicago area. My parents were the first in their families to immigrate to the U.S. We had extended family — aunts, uncles, and cousins — who stayed with us as they were arriving in the U.S., until they could get stable and settle into homes of their own.

Until recently, my mom ran a convenience store in Chicago. It was also like a training ground for some of my relatives to get job skills. As a child, I saw the kind of support my relatives needed as they got started in a new country — to learn English, apply for jobs, get into school, get into the right grade in school, find housing.

I learned amazing lessons about community care and how we show up for one another. That was really formative for me. I learned that we all need different things to be supported, and we access those things in different ways.

I joined Minnesota Housing, the state’s housing finance agency, in August 2023 as assistant commissioner of the new Housing Stability Division. Before that, I was the CEO at People Serving People (PSP). The organization works with families experiencing homelessness, providing shelter and wraparound services. It also works to prevent the experience of homelessness through prevention programs and advancing systems change. I had been with PSP for almost six years, and became the CEO in 2020 — which was a wild time to take on that role.

What I enjoyed most at People Serving People was partnering with families on the Guest Advisory Council, listening to families talk about the things that were working and not working.

This ranged from issues in our shelter space to navigating community resources. We tapped into their ideas and solutions. It was my job to figure out how to make that happen with them. That was really fun. We made some good changes together that reduced barriers and stress, and centered dignity.

During the pandemic, everything was changing daily. We were worried for everybody’s health and safety. We were clear on what our values and priorities were, to see everybody through in the best way that we could. I’m proud of the work we did together, navigating a health crisis at the same time that our communities were literally burning down because of racial injustice.

Graphic courtesy Minnesota Housing Partnership

I learned a lot from PSP and the families we worked with. Our families were strong. They were resilient. I knew they were working as hard as they could to be on their path to stability. I saw the staff at PSP working hard to support them, within systems that don’t quite work as they should. The county shelter system was at 300 percent capacity. More supports were needed to prevent homelessness. That’s part of why I came to Minnesota Housing, to make that path to housing stability smoother for families.

The misconception is that encampment residents don’t want housing. That’s not the case. Everybody wants the dignity of housing. Everybody wants respect. It just looks different for how they want it.

Root Causes of Housing Instability

Early in my time at PSP, I really wanted to understand the root cause of homelessness. I learned it was caused by a lost job, an eviction, a sick kid, a sick parent, a caregiver who had passed away, or somebody they were staying with who couldn’t house them anymore. Limited access to adequate mental health care, child care, and transportation were also factors. I heard many individual circumstances that led families to People Serving People.

What I could not ignore was structural and persistent racism that affected families of color, in particular Black and Indigenous families. Yet, even during the pandemic, I remained hopeful about finding solutions to the housing crisis people are facing. I was hopeful because, at the height of the pandemic, we had the lowest shelter utilization in my time at PSP. That’s because there were adequate resources supporting families to stay safely housed. The child tax credit from the federal level, rental assistance, and the evictions moratorium all made a difference. We had low shelter use because people were staying stably housed.

So, we know how to do this. Now we need to figure out a way to keep people permanently and stably housed.

People experiencing homelessness work very hard to navigate the systems that are a patchwork of safety nets duct- taped together. I want to help make the systems work for people.

This is a unique moment, with the new appropriations for housing. We’ve never seen an investment like $1.3 billion before. We have a generally supportive legislature and executive branch, and a housing commissioner who is driven to move the needle around housing instability and homelessness.

The new strategic plan, “Crossroads to Justice: Minnesota’s New Pathways to Housing, Racial and Health Justice for People Facing Homelessness,” is a great example of that. The report is the culmination of a 1.5-year process co-led by 10 people with lived experience of homelessness from around the state, chaired by Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, and led by assistant commissioner Cathy ten Broeke. It sets a deep process of statewide collaboration around meeting goals and enhancing resources.

Different parts of the state need different things. Minnesota Housing’s single-family, manufactured housing, and multifamily teams finished selections for affordable housing developments. Those three teams together have approved $350 million for over 4,700 housing units. They’re in partnership with developers and communities to meet different needs.

I think Minnesota is starting to listen better to people who have experienced homelessness and housing instability, who have navigated our systems from the ground. There’s more energy and focus on that, as part of creating a process that leads to more equitable results.

Instead of the same old top-down solutions, I think we’re getting much better at intently and intentionally listening, and then acting based on what people are telling us needs to happen. This kind of change can be hard for people in government because it questions the way we do things and holds us accountable.

The Housing Stability Division I now lead is new at Minnesota Housing. We’re working to elevate housing stability in an agency that’s focused on affordable housing development, housing preservation, and helping more people become homeowners.

Three Goals for Our Division

1) Preventing the experience of homelessness. Through the division’s grant programs, we will reduce the disparities in who experiences homelessness by increasing access to resources and supports.

2) Adequately resourcing permanent supportive housing. We are inadequately funding both the supportive services and operational needs. Luckily, we received funding in the last legislative session to try to make this model more effective for the people experiencing housing instability, in partnership with colleagues at the Department of Human Services. This also involves addressing inefficiencies that lead to housing vacancies and long wait times for people to get into housing.

3) Housing stability at the intersections. We have programs that work at the intersection of disability, mental health, people living with HIV and AIDS, families with young children, and chronic homelessness. Each of those populations has slightly different needs. We are increasing effectiveness in figuring out what needs to happen within those communities and the providers that support them.

There’s a lot that I’m learning. There’s still a lot that I don’t know. But those three goals will get us closer to ensuring housing stability for Minnesotans.

One of the reasons I loved the Guest Advisory Council at PSP was that I got to see how mostly moms were showing up for other moms in that space — how they were a support to one another. We know how to support each other in moments of crisis.

I think about the staff I had the privilege to work with, many with lived experience of housing instability or other adversities. I saw the compassion and empathy and passion they had. They knew that the people we were working with were not too different from them.

How do we embed that kind of ethos and love of community, that love of people, into the systems that we’re working in? That’s my secret mission.

Rinal Ray (she/her) has a B.A. in international studies and political science from Macalester College and a law degree from William Mitchell College of Law. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and seven-year-old son, enjoying bike rides and Uno tournaments.