Panel discusses how racial equity can help solve homelessness

The speakers who discussed racial equity as a solution to homelessness, from left to right: Dr. Monica Bharel, Julia Tripp, and Jeff Olivet.

On Thursday, June 14, the Center for Social Innovation held a discussion at The Nonprofit Center in downtown Boston about systemic racism and its impact on the homeless population—and how improving racial equity could keep more people of color in their homes. The event came months after they released a study which analyzed over 100,000 individual records from homeless management information systems in six different communities and collected 148 oral histories. In total, they found that 78 percent of the homeless are people of color.

“People of color are dramatically more likely to become homeless,” said Jeff Olivet, a senior advisor at the Center for Social Innovation and founder of the Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities (SPARC) team that led the study.

SPARC found that black people accounted for 64 percent of those experiencing homelessness in the studied communities were black, even though they were only 18 percent of the general population. Black people were even more overrepresented among the homeless aged 18 to 24, at 78 percent. Native Americans also made up a disproportionate number of the homeless population; though they made up 0.4 percent of the population in the study, they accounted for 1.6 percent of the homeless. In an interview prior to the panel, Olivet told Spare Change News he believes the number of Hispanic homeless people are underreported. Since Latin American heritage is ethnic and not racial, many may be categorized as white or black based on their appearance.

At the event, Olivet noted that these numbers didn’t necessarily follow the makeup of those living in deep poverty. White people actually made up a larger share of those living in deep poverty, at 45 percent, but only represented 28 percent of the homeless population.

“If poverty alone explained the disproportionality we’re talking about … you’d expect this homelessness number to look a whole lot like this deep poverty population,” Olivet said at the event. “What we’re speculating is that that has to do with structural racism. That [it] has to do with ongoing discrimination in housing, in employment, in criminal justice, in healthcare, in any other system you want to look at.”

Olivet also added that many people in these communities suffer from “network disinvestment.” They lack the resources to get themselves out of poverty, and no one in their immediate family or community has the resources to help.

Olivet also noted that the study explored the makeup of the workforce at homeless services providers. Almost two thirds of senior managers at such programs were white, and over 50 percent of employees in other roles were white.

Julia Tripp was an interviewer for the study, and spoke about her experience as a researcher. Tripp said that many of the homeless she interviewed described similar factors that led to their situation, like “low wage jobs, lost jobs, long periods of unemployment, physical disabilities, mental illness.” Sexual abuse was also a common factor, she said.

Later Tripp said her own life began to reflect her work with the homeless when she tried to get housing with a Section 8 voucher. She said it was hard to find an apartment that can accommodate her disability (she walks with a cane) and one landlord turned her away due to her credit score. Tripp said that the timeframes for housing voucher holders to find new apartments needs to be increased, and that the process needs more clarity and guidelines.

Dr. Monica Bharel, Commission of the Massachusetts Public Health Department, was the final member of the panel, who noted that the state has looked at links between health and race and between health and homelessness. She said that across Massachusetts, poor health and lower life expectancies are often concentrated in poorer communities and neighborhoods of color.

“How well we live, how healthy we live, and when we die, is still related to zip code more than any other factor. More than biology, more than our genes, more than our access to health care,” Dr. Bharel said. She was also the former medical director of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.

Race matters, said Dr. Bharel, because the map of disease-burdened communities matches the map of communities affected by redlining policies. Redlining was a federal housing policy from the 1930s to 1960s where the government guaranteed mortgage loans for many white people, but refused to do the same for black people, or even those living near black neighborhoods. “We have to look deeply at structural racism if we’re to improve health,” she said.

She also stressed the importance of data collected by studies like the Center for Social Innovation’s, adding that when Massachusetts tried to gain insight on the links between homelessness and opioid addiction, they had no numbers to work with and had to create their own. Dr. Bharel said the Health Department is working towards policies that can prevent homelessness, intervening when a person may need assistance.  

Dr. Bharel pointed to revised regulations regarding health system expansions, as one way government can help promote housing stability. When a hospital or health center seeks to expand, five percent of the funding for that expansion goes to community health projects. Community-based groups, guided by state health priorities, then decide what gets funded. They focus  on four major areas: mental health, substance abuse, early onset of preventable diseases, and, finally, homelessness and housing instability.

“For the first time ever at the state level, we have set as a health priority housing stability and homelessness for our health care partners to focus on,” Bharel said.

Olivet summed up the study’s recommended actions that organizations and policy makers can take. Organizations and agencies can work to diversify their workforce and adapt their programs to better fit their clients of color. Policy makers should work to enforce fair housing protections, regulate evictions and help develop affordable housing.

“Racial equity is not just the absence of overt racial discrimination. It’s also the presence of deliberate policies and practices that provide everyone with the support they need to improve the quality of their lives,” Olivet said.

The six communities in the SPARC study were Atlanta, Ga.; Columbus, Ohio; Dallas, Texas; San Francisco, Calif.; Syracuse, N.Y.; and Pierce County, Wash.. Portland, Ore. and Minneapolis, Minn. have since joined the study. The event was dedicated to the late Dawn Jahn Moses, a leading activist in child and family homelessness.

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