The Racial Disparity in the Urban Homeless Population

Credit: The Alliance's Demographic Data Project

The Role of Structural and Institutional Racism in the Inequity in the Homeless Population

The National Alliance to End HomelessnessDemographic Data Project raises a variety of questions about how people’s experiences of homelessness can vary, based on race, gender, and gender identity.

The project also sheds light on how where people experiencing homelessness live can impact their homelessness.

The Data Project uses HUD’s AHAR data which points to the racial disparity among the urban homeless population – those experiencing homelessness who live in major cities. In major cities in the U.S., individuals who are African American are overrepresented in the homeless population while individuals who are white are underrepresented in the homeless population.

Those experiencing homelessness in urban areas also face many other significant barriers to accessing affordable housing including high housing costs, income inequality, and structural racism. Major cities especially need to address the racial inequity in their homeless populations and the root causes of this inequity if they are truly going to end homelessness. How do we ensure that the homeless system itself is not perpetuating racial inequity and the results of structural and institutional racism?

According the Data Project, the highest group rate of homelessness occurs in major cities and 104 out of every 10,000 Black people in major cities are homeless.

The Data Project  finds that white people are significantly underrepresented in the homeless population of major cities. They are 38 percent of the homeless population and 61 percent of the general population. This 23-percentage point gap is the highest in major cities out of all of the geographic types covered in the report.

Meanwhile, overrepresentation within homelessness occurs among Black people in major cities. Black people experiencing homelessness in major cities are overrepresented by 35-percentage which is higher than the gap found in other urban, suburban and rural areas.

With a more local focus, an October 5, 2019 VC Star article, “’A by-product of racism’: Black people disproportionately homeless in California,” refers to a report by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) indicating that institutional racism plays a large role in the extreme over-representation of homelessness of all people of color.

“Black people are more likely than White people to experience homelessness in the United States, including in Los Angeles County,” the report says. “…The impact of institutional and structural racism in education, criminal justice, housing, employment, health care, and access to opportunities cannot be denied: homelessness is a by-product of racism in America.”

This report focusing on Los Angeles County ties homelessness to both institutional and structural racism. When Black and African American people are not given the same opportunities in education, the criminal justice system, and access to housing, healthcare and other opportunities, they result is a racial disparity in the homeless population.

The AHAR data in the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ Data Project also finds that shelter usage in major cities varies by race. Black people are more likely to seek emergency shelter than those of other races including White people, Asians and American Indians. This raises questions about why is there a racial disparity among the shelter population? And does the service delivery system need to be changed to address how services are being delivered and connected to those experiencing homelessness?

NJ Counts 2019 provided us with a snapshot of the population experiencing homelessness in the state of New Jersey on a single night. NJCounts 2019 found that Blacks or African Americans were represented in the population experiencing homelessness and the results of this report are intended to assist communities in understanding the characteristics and needs of those experiencing homelessness so as to improve service delivery and resource targeting to effectively end homelessness.

The statewide NJCounts 2019 results are broken down on a county by county basis rather than geographic type as in the Data Project.  But the NJCounts data does reinforce the findings around the racial disparity in the homeless population whether the county has a major city or a mostly urban, suburban or rural population.

As communities work to expand their understanding of the root causes of homelessness it is important to recognize the structural forces impacting trajectories into and out of homelessness. The racial disparity between who is using the shelter system may tell us how service delivery needs to be changed to meet the needs of the populations using and not using the shelter system.

Disparities in who experiences homelessness highlights the impact of a pervasive structural force of systemic racism. Acknowledging and understanding the impact of systemic racism on those experiencing homelessness is key to developing an effective system responsive to the community and strengthened in cultural understanding and awareness.

it is critical for communities that seek to address, and end homelessness also examine issues of racial inequity as they relate to causes of homelessness and access to housing and services. Solutions that seek to successfully address issues of homelessness must implemented with a racial equity lens in order for their impact to be lasting and effective.