When I began working with people experiencing homelessness more than two decades ago, I viewed homelessness as an isolated social issue. I, like many, thought that the causes of homelessness had to do with unemployment, mental illness, addiction, and domestic violence. What I quickly learned--in large part from the people I worked with in shelters and on the streets--was that individual vulnerabilities were not root causes. These were individual risk factors that helped determine who might slip through the cracks into homelessness. The root causes had more to do with the lack of decent affordable housing and our frayed (or non-existent) health and human services safety net. I came to understand that ending homelessness for an individual or family requires permanent housing coupled with services and supports to maintain stability.
It was also obvious that many more people of color were living in homeless shelters. Under the influence of societal half-truths, I assumed that merely reflected who lived in poverty. It quickly became clear that poverty was only one part of the picture.
A 2011 study by George Carter of the U.S. Census Bureau found that even when controlling for poverty, poor African Americans were dramatically more likely than poor whites to become homeless. Once homeless, black men remained homeless longer than white men.
The fact that racial disproportionality in the homeless population is more than an issue of poverty raises troubling questions: Does residential segregation and racial discrimination in housing drive homelessness? How does discrimination in employment leave many people of color more vulnerable to homelessness than whites? How does the mass incarceration of people contribute to homelessness?
A powerful article by Ta-Nehisi Coates on "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration" makes the link between incarceration and homelessness:
"Incarceration pushes you out of the job market. Incarceration disqualifies you from feeding your family with food stamps. Incarceration allows for housing discrimination based on criminal-background check. Incarceration increases your risk of homelessness. Incarceration increases your chances of being incarcerated again."
When people of color are disproportionately incarcerated, they are more likely to experience homelessness and face additional challenges as they attempt to exit homelessness.
Rarely recognized and even more rarely discussed, homelessness is a symptom of the rampant institutional racism in our country. This racism plays out in housing, jobs, education, health care, and criminal justice.
Racism is, of course, not the only cause of homelessness. Over the past four decades, we have gutted our federal investment in affordable housing and underfunded our mental health and substance use treatment systems. We have not brought effective models for ending homelessness to scale. We have not held our elected officials, faith communities, or corporations accountable for helping to solve the entrenched social problems related to homelessness.
We must fix these injustices. We must also understand that homelessness and racism are inextricably linked, and that any solution to homelessness is necessarily wrapped up in the work of dismantling racism. We must begin to address, in a fundamental way, all of the true underlying causes of homelessness.