Racial Equity: An Essential Component of Our Nation’s Homelessness Response

September 11, 2017

Our national conversation about homelessness has been missing a critical piece: an honest, open conversation about the racial dimensions of homelessness. People of color—specifically Blacks and Native Americans—are dramatically more likely than White Americans to experience homelessness. Furthermore, pathways out of homelessness for people of color are complicated by ongoing discrimination in housing, employment, health care, and education. Not only are people of color paid less and offered fewer jobs than Whites, but Black people have also, for more than a century, been systematically excluded from home ownership, the single greatest driver of wealth accumulation in this country. Additionally, discrimination in criminal justice has left vast numbers of people of color with criminal records that limit access to housing and jobs as they attempt to exit homelessness.

In these and other ways, the deck is stacked against people of color prior to homelessness, and it is stacked against them again as they struggle to move out of homelessness. It is the responsibility of all of us working to end homelessness to begin seeing the problem through the lens of race. Over the past year, communities around the country have begun to do just that. Our SPARC (Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities) Initiative has launched in six communities. Bringing together research and community action, the effort has begun to document, through rigorous research, the extent of homelessness among people of color, and specific challenges they face in exiting homelessness.

We have found that in every SPARC community Blacks are at least three times more likely than Whites to be homeless, and that in some communities that number balloons to 6 to 1. Native Americans are the only other group that comes close, with homelessness numbers that are consistently 2 to 1 compared to Whites.

Many challenges face people of color at the intersection of homelessness. Not only are disproportionate numbers of individuals and families of color experiencing deep poverty, but often their entire networks are as well, leaving few options when something goes wrong. A vehicle breaking down, a sick kid, or a utility shut off notice can quickly spiral to the loss of jobs, income, and housing. Disproportionate involvement in child welfare systems often becomes multigenerational, destabilizing families and entire communities.

Another dimension—one that is difficult for many of us to acknowledge—is the bias and discrimination that exists within the homelessness response system itself. Programs are too often not responsive to the needs of communities of color. Agency staff too often lacks the diversity of the people they serve. Even when they do, staff of color are typically in low-paid jobs with little influence over programs and policy, while most program managers, executive leadership, and board members are White.

As we begin to see homelessness through the lens of race, solutions begin to emerge. First, organizations must get their own houses in order, hiring and growing new leaders of color to shape the future of our national and local response to homelessness. Second, programs should target resources to end homelessness for Blacks and Native Americans. Without such targeting of resources, homelessness will continue to disproportionately affect people of color. We must recognize that approaching homelessness through a racial equity lens is not playing favorites; it is responding to the data. Third, we must go upstream and focus on prevention. By turning off the pipeline into homelessness from criminal justice, child welfare, and foster care systems, we can begin to move the needle on new homelessness among people of color.

And finally, every conversation about preventing or ending homelessness must include the voice and perspective of people of color who have been there. By amplifying the voices of people who have experienced homelessness—particularly people of color—we will come to understand new strategies and new solutions.  We will construct new ways of thinking and new approaches that have not yet been considered. Through this difficult and courageous work, together we will begin to dismantle, brick by brick, the walls of structural racism that we as a society have spent centuries constructing.

This is the first in an ongoing series focused on issues of equity in ending homelessness.

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