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Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change


Changing the Conversation

Homelessness Is a Symptom of Racism

01/16/16 02:33 PM | Jeff Olivet | Race, Homelessness

Race and Homelessness: Discrimination in Housing

The United States faces a deeply troublesome, maddeningly persistent racial gap in income and wealth -- a gap that is growing, not shrinking. According to McKernan and colleagues at the Urban Institute, the income ratio between whites and blacks is approximately 2:1, a number that has remained essentially unchanged over the past three decades. More troublesome is the 6:1 wealth ratio between whites and blacks. This suggests that white privilege dominates and results in greater financial prosperity for whites, while leaving black families and individuals out of the nation's economic growth and recovery.

Discrimination in housing remains a consistent driver of racial inequality among people who are homeless. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reported that people of color are shown fewer rental units and more often denied leases based on credit history compared to white renters. Discrimination creates the circumstances in which African Americans are more likely to experience homelessness. It also creates significant barriers to exiting homelessness.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty argues that "homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in the United States of America have a disparate racial impact, in violation of the United States' obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination." The fact that our nation has created a housing system that perpetuates racial inequality is not merely a historical relic. It runs counter to our international obligations and jeopardizes our moral standing as a global superpower with the potential to provide an example to other nations about how affluent countries should provide for their poorest citizens.

Similarly, racism and discrimination continue to keep unemployment rates high among African Americans and to increase the risk for homelessness. According to Pager and Shepherd, African Americans are twice as likely as whites to be unemployed, while Hispanics are only slightly affected. Studies have consistently found that applicants with stereotypically black names (e.g., Jamal, Lakisha) receive 50 percent fewer callbacks for job interviews than candidates with white-sounding names (e.g., Brad, Emily). When the deck is stacked against African Americans in the labor market, homelessness becomes increasingly likely and exiting from homelessness increasingly difficult.

Mass incarceration of people of color, particularly African American men and boys, further increases the likelihood of becoming homeless. One in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetimes. People of color make up 30 percent of the U.S. population, but they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. In 2010, black women were almost three times as likely as white women to be incarcerated, and Hispanic women were almost twice as likely.

Incarceration shackles people for life with a felony record, inhibiting potential employment, access to housing, and full reintegration in the community. Professor Michelle Alexander has described mass incarceration as "the new Jim Crow" -- the next iteration of institutional racism, following slavery and the Jim Crow Apartheid system that ruled the South from the fall of Reconstruction until the civil rights movement. Alexander says, "We avoid talking about caste in our society because we are ashamed of our racial history." We similarly avoid the conversation about race and homelessness because we are ashamed that we have created such a system.

In an editorial in the New York Times on July 18, 2015, Isabel Wilkerson declared that we as a nation are at "Our Racial Moment of Truth." The current conversation about race in the United States is difficult. It involves police shootings of unarmed black men, Confederate flags on State Capitol buildings, and a church shooting in Charleston that killed nine African Americans.

To begin what Wilkerson calls "a more meaningful reconstruction... would require a generosity of spirit to see ourselves in the continued suffering of a people stigmatized since their arrival on these shores and to recognize how the unspoken hierarchies we have inherited play out in the current day and hold us back as a country." Americans can do better. We have the potential to be great, but not until we confront our racial history in an authentic and meaningful way.

My hope is that the national dialogue about race also includes a dialogue about race and homelessness.

Learn more from Jeff Olivet:

Webcast: Racism, Homelessness & Social Justice

This blog originally appeared on Huffington Post. It is the second in a series about the intersection of race and homelessness. Read the first installment.

Jeff Olivet

Written by Jeff Olivet

Jeff Olivet is the CEO at the Center for Social Innovation. He is a national leader on homelessness, poverty, affordable housing, behavioral health, public health, and HIV. He has been a street outreach worker, case manager, housing director, coalition builder, writer, teacher, and activist. Jeff is a recognized expert in bringing innovative technologies and solutions to complex social problems.