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Homelessness: It's About Race, Not Just Poverty

City Limits -  Ralph da Costa Nunez -  3/2012

A new report finds black families are seven times more likely than whites to end up in the shelter system. For a minority group that's faced official and and informal housing discrimination, poverty is only part of the explanation.

(Reposted with permission from an op-ed in City Limits magazine)

When talking about homelessness, race is often the elephant in the room. But no matter how much we avoid it, the blunt reality is that black Americans are greatly overrepresented in homeless shelters across the United States. In 2010, one out of every 141 black family members sought refuge in a homeless shelter, a rate seven times higher than members of white families.

The Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness report “Intergenerational Disparities Experienced by Homeless Black Families,” released Thursday, sheds light on this grim circumstance, by highlighting disparities among black and white families in the United States.

The statistics are stark: Black persons in families make up 12.1 percent of the U.S. family population, but represented 38.8 percent of sheltered persons in families in 2010. In comparison, 65.8 percent of persons in families in the general population are white, while white family members only occupied 28.6 percent of family shelter beds in 2010.

This disparity exists in city after city throughout the country, For example, in New York City and St. Louis in 2009, the most recent data available, twice as many black families were found in shelters (55.9 percent and 95 percent, respectively) compared to their share of the general city population (25.2 percent versus 49.5 percent). The opposite held true for white families who were vastly underrepresented in local shelters (1.9 percent and 3 percent, respectively), given the percentages of white families in New York City and St. Louis overall (36.1 percent versus 44.7 percent).

The next question, of course, is why?

Homelessness is primarily a poverty issue. In 2010, nearly one-quarter (23.3 percent) of black families lived in poverty, three times the rate of white families (7.1 percent).

But there is more to it than that. Understanding why blacks are overrepresented in homeless shelters requires an examination of the longstanding and interrelated social and structural issues facing the black community. Throughout U.S. history, housing discrimination has been ever-present, both in the form of official government policies and societal attitudes. Federal policies that reduced the stock of affordable housing through urban renewal projects displaced a disproportionate number of poor blacks living concentrated in cities to other substandard urban neighborhoods.

Residential segregation, which affects black households to a greater extent than other minorities, perpetuates poverty patterns by isolating blacks in areas that lack employment opportunities and services, and experience higher crime and poverty rates. Blacks are also overrepresented in the criminal justice system, which increases the risk of homelessness and developmental delays among affected children.

Lower educational attainment among blacks, in particular black males, is a barrier to gaining any employment and especially to qualifying for jobs in well-compensated sectors. Black males earn bachelor’s degrees or higher at half the rate of white males (15.6 percent compared to 32 percent). Employment disparities rooted in subtle forms of discrimination persist even with educational advancement.

In 2010, blacks with an associate's degree experienced a higher unemployment rate than whites with a high-school diploma (10.8 percent and 9.5 percent, respectively). Furthermore, a male black employee with a bachelor’s degree or higher was paid one-quarter (25.4 percent) less on average in weekly full-time salary ($1,010) in 2010 compared to a male white worker ($1,354) with the same level of education.

This report raises the question of why family homelessness is a racial issue. This phenomenon is not new, but is rarely discussed. Although government-sanctioned racial discrimination may be a relic of the past, the finding that blacks are overrepresented in shelter when compared to whites demonstrates that blacks continue to face prejudice and substantial access barriers to decent employment, education, health care, and housing not experienced by whites.

It takes a community to end homelessness. Family shelters can—and do—function as part of the front-line, combating bias and providing opportunities for families who fall through the cracks. However it will take more than a few service providers to call attention to the elephant in the room. It will take all of us as a nation to voice our intolerance of policies that make it difficult for some to ever rise out of poverty.

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