Homelessness is not a social issue. It is not a research question to be studied. And it is certainly not a type of person: someone who ends up on the streets through a series of bad choices or personal flaws. Instead, homelessness mirrors everything that is broken in our society. It reflects our biases, our meanness, our lack of compassion and our views of each other as fellow human beings.
When we speak of homelessness, our words--along with our programs, funding streams, and academic research--often focus appropriately on housing, healthcare and services. All are essential for ending homelessness. Yet, homelessness is about more than this. It is also about poverty, oppression, ostracism, inequality, and racial injustice.
When we massively reduce affordable housing, homelessness results. When millions of people are crushed by medical bills because they have been denied coverage, homelessness results. When our education system gives some children the best opportunities and leaves other languishing in illiteracy and crumbling schools, homelessness results. When access to mental health and substance use treatment is non-existent for all but those with the means to pay, homelessness results.
When racial discrimination stubbornly persists in housing and employment, homelessness results. When black men and boys continue to be incarcerated in massive numbers, homelessness results.
Let me say a word about my background. I am a white male. I have benefitted from every ounce of white, male privilege our country offers. Am I the right person to speak with any authority about racism and oppression? Probably not. And yet, if white men remain silent, we will never fully address racism in our society.
Within the context of our country's deep, complicated, and painful racial history, homelessness has emerged on the national landscape. Homelessness is inextricably linked to poverty and racism. Twenty years ago Kim Hopper wrote, "We should reintegrate discussions of homelessness with those of persistent poverty. And in these discussions, the issue of race is unavoidable." His advice still holds.
Here are the facts about racism and homelessness: African Americans are more likely to become homeless than people of all other racial groups, except possibly Native Americans. One study of shelter utilization in New York City and Philadelphia found that African Americans were 16 times more likely to end up in shelters than their white counterparts. Even more staggering, the study showed that black children under the age of five were 29 times more likely than White children to be in homeless shelters. Furthermore, George Carter found that black men remain homeless longer than white men--with a 3 year average duration of homelessness for black men compared to 2.4 years for white men.
High rates of African American homelessness have often been dismissed as the result of large numbers of blacks living in deep poverty. Poverty is certainly a major determinant of who becomes homeless. Yet, even when we control for poverty, we find that poor African Americans experience homelessness at significantly higher rates than poor whites or poor Hispanics.
Although African Americans comprise 13% of the US population and 26% of those living in poverty, they account for more than 40% of the overall homeless population. "After 1980," writes Carter, "blacks became overrepresented in the homeless population with respect to their share of the national populations and the poverty population." Poverty rates alone do not explain the dramatic over-representation of African Americans among people who are homeless.
Our national conversation has been too narrow for too long. We have focused primarily on poverty, housing, and services--all critical to ending homelessness. Now we must broaden the conversation about homelessness to include racism. If we are unable to do this, we will never face ourselves, and we will never solve homelessness.