Racism and Homelessness: Advocates say “we have to connect the two”

Photo: Alex Ramirez

While technically anyone can end up homeless, numbers show that black Americans and Native Americans not only end up in the streets and shelters in greater numbers, but they also stay there longer than their white counterparts.

“Black folks are 12.5 percent of the general population but 27 percent of folks living in poverty and about 40 to 45 percent of shelter populations,” Marc Dones, senior analyst for health policy at the Center for Social Innovation, told Spare Change News. “And the duration and episodes of homelessness tend to be longer and more frequent for blacks and Native Americans.” Dones’ numbers reflect numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“There’s also a connection to housing discrimination, employment and incarceration,” added Jeff Olivet, the Center’s president and CEO.

This realization, among others, prompted the Center for Social Innovation to host a panel about the intersection of racism and homelessness in Boston and throughout the country. Joining Dones and Olivet at the panel was Monica Bharel, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The panel was held in the African Meeting Hall of the African American History Museum.

“When we talk about race and homelessness, we have to connect the two,” said Olivet, kicking off the panel. Racism and homelessness are usually discussed as broad, separate issues—it’s time to infuse a discussion of “deep poverty” into dialogues on racism and to bring race into homelessness, said Olivet.

Dones, the second panelist, noted that housing discrimination is embedded in over a century of racist policies, namely, redlining practices. He then showed a map of Boston that featured red splotches over “the areas you’d expect”—communities of color like Roxbury. The Federal Housing Authority wouldn’t back mortgages in those red zones, a practice which persisted until the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

“Black people have only been able to get mortgages since the 70s,” Dones said. Issues exist to this day—for example, blacks are shown fewer options than whites and are offered poorer closing deals.

Finally, Monica Bharel discussed the connection between housing and health. “Place matters more than anything else in health,” she said. Housing and income disparities lead to health disparities—and such disparities often overlap with the gap between whites and non-whites. Using a map that showed health by MBTA stops, she noted that many communities had equal access to hospitals, so something deeper than “accessibility” must be at play. Bhurel used to work for the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, and while there, she learned the impact that place has on health.

“I would ask my patients ‘what do you need to stay healthy?’ And the most common answer was ‘a home,’” she said.

Olivet and Dones told Spare Change News that policy solutions do exist. For example, the Fair Housing Act has the authority to combat discriminatory housing practices. However, such regulations are totally unenforced. Presidents like Reagan and Nixon opposed housing integration, and Bill Clinton was forced to abandon fair housing goals in the wake of his impeachment scandals.

“It’s not a question of doing new things, it’s about enforcing what’s already on the books,” said Dones, adding that better communication and standardized language could help agencies coordinate and determine how to award money—specifically distinguishing funds for servicing and those for services. He added that the government could use its money and resources to build housing while letting states and cities handle services.

Olivet mentioned that at the municipal level, communities can analyze numbers to determine the demographics of homelessness and see who’s not getting housing or resources.

The lack of enforcement and subsequent inequality led the New York Times editorial board to call the situation “Housing Apartheid, American Style.” The article concluded that: “In the absence of strong federal leadership, the task of securing fair housing has largely fallen to housing and civil rights groups, which have routinely taken cities and counties and the federal government itself to court for failing to enforce anti-discrimination laws” and that the feds should be ready to withhold money from communities that perpetuate housing inequalities. Currently, the Obama administration is trying to strengthen housing policies and combat discrimination laws.

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