'Not an accident' that people of color over-represented in homeless population, study shows

2018-03-13 | The News Tribune

March 13--Structural racism, not simply poverty, causes homelessness. Some of you won't want to hear that, but it's true -- and a new study confirms it.

Jeff Olivet, the CEO of the Boston-based Center for Social Innovation, called the findings "shocking, but not surprising."

Olivet's organization completed the recently released study into racial inequities in homelessness. It focused on six communities across the country, including San Francisco, Atlanta, Dallas and -- yes -- Pierce County.

As Olivet suggested, the results were equally appalling and predictable -- at least to those willing to acknowledge the reality and long-term impacts of structural racism.

In the six communities involved in the study, nearly two-thirds of people experiencing homelessness were black (64.7 percent), while just over a quarter were white (28 percent).

In all, 78.3 percent of individuals experiencing homelessness were people of color. Contrast this with the general population -- which is 73.8 percent white, 12.4 percent black, and 17.2 percent Hispanic/Latinx.

The findings for young people were particularly troubling. Among 18- to 24-year-olds experiencing homelessness, people of color made up 89-percent of the group. Again, black people were distinctly over-represented, making up 78 percent of the group.

"It is the result of centuries of structural racism that have excluded historically oppressed people -- particularly Black and Native Americans -- from equal access to housing, community supports, and opportunities for economic mobility," the study's authors note in the executive summary.

"In other words," Olivet said, "it's not an accident."

Launched in late 2016 as part of a broader initiative known as SPARC (Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities), the study combined quantitative data analysis -- like looking at data from the national Homeless Management Information System and general population data from the U.S. Census -- with qualitative fieldwork, including the collection of life histories from African Americans who have experienced homelessness.

The takeaway about the role poverty plays in predicting homelessness might be the study's most surprising finding. Most assume poverty and homelessness go hand-in-hand, but the study found a more complicated story.

By comparing the percentage of people living in poverty to those who experience homelessness, it became clear that poverty alone cannot explain the racial over-representations we see in our homeless populations, not just in the six communities included in the study, but nationwide.

For instance, while "Black people comprise 13 percent of the general population in the United States and 26 percent of those living in poverty, they account for more than 40 percent of the homeless population," according to an analysis in the study of information from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Marc Dones, the associate director of equity initiatives at the Center for Social Innovation, was specifically involved with the center's work in Pierce County. Dones said the study's broader findings largely mirrored what researchers found in our neck of the woods.

"Deep poverty is overwhelming white folks everywhere," Dones said. "What is remarkable is that homelessness is overwhelmingly folks of color. So it disrupts this really clean and easy narrative that we tell ourselves about how poverty and homelessness are connected and you can't solve homelessness without solving poverty."

For people of color, Dones explained, homelessness becomes "a particular outcome that we do not see for white people."

The collection of oral histories -- which included interviews with 148 individuals across the six study locations -- dove into some of those root causes of homelessness for people of color. It identified a shortage of affordable housing options and a lack of family stability -- often exemplified by "multi-generational" involvements in the child-welfare and foster-care systems -- as key contributing factors.

The study also put a spotlight on our behavioral health system. It found that system to be ill-prepared to deal with the specific needs of people of color. It again pointed a finger at our criminal-justice system, where people of color are historically over-represented often resulting in long-term difficulties finding work or housing.

Additionally, the study painted a telling picture of the way fragile social networks in communities of color can exacerbate the problem. Researchers even came up with a name for this phenomenon -- "network impoverishment."

In short, they found that while communities of color are just as willing to step up and help a friend, family member or neighbor on the cusp of homelessness, many are in such a precarious financial situation themselves that it brings everyone involved closer to homelessness instead of helping to prevent it.

All of this is very depressing, but both Olivet and Dones cited reasons for hope.

In particular, Dones said the study shows that simple things, like creating a framework for intervention well before someone experiences homelessness -- whether that means helping to pay an outstanding utility bill or repair a car so someone can continue to go to work -- has the potential to make a meaningful difference.

"Fundamentally, the hope is: We built these systems. We can build new ones," Olivet added.

Still, the sizable challenge in front of us is evident, and it's one that can no longer be viewed through a colorblind lens.

"The message is clear," said Tess Colby, manager of the Pierce County Human Services Department's Community Services Division. "To end homelessness, we must confront structural racism."

That's true.

The question is: What are we going to do about it?

Matt Driscoll: 253-597-8657, mdriscoll@thenewstribune.com, @mattsdriscoll