Talking the Truth About Causes of Racial Disparity in NJ’s Homeless Population

Racial Disparity Not Result of Individual Problems But Instead Impacted by Structural Racism

A recent Shelterforce article, “The Opposite of Deficit-Based Language Isn’t Asset-Based Language. It’s Truth Telling” raises the importance of talking about the individuals you work with and the neighborhoods that you work in.

At the 2019 Opportunity Finance Network conference in Washington DC that took place on October 21, 2019, panelists has a conversation about “Asset-Based Language:   How to Avoid the Rescue Syndrome in our Communications.”  
A part of the approach that Miriam Axel-Lute shared in her Shelterforce article that resonated with me about addressing the racial disparity in New Jersey’ population was:
“The way to avoid the problem of having the struggles of individual people or places represent something inherent and immutable is to explicitly point out the systems at work—past and present—that cause them. If you’re talking about a problem, use language that reflects that systematic disparities and communitywide problems in fact have systemic causes, that harm has been done, and that these are not self-caused problems, and explicitly describe those systems whenever possible.”
“Talk about what the factors are going into the issue,” said Price. “How did we get here? Stats alone don’t tell people why you are sharing that statistic. Don’t forget why you are telling the story.”  Mackenzie Price is with the Frameworks Institute.  Among the resources on the Frameworks Institute’s website are these resources about race and these resources about homelessness.  The Frameworks Institute recognizes that race factors into an individual’s risk status for experiencing homelessness.”
The NJCounts 2019 report reminds us that as communities work to expand their understanding of the root causes of homelessness it is important recognize the structural forces impacting trajectories into and out of homelessness. Disparities in who experiences homelessness highlight the impact of a pervasive structural force: 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.
NJ Counts 2019 provides a snapshot of the population experiencing homelessness in the state of New Jersey on a single night.  On January 22, 2019 there were 8,864 persons experiencing homelessness on a single night in the State of New Jersey.  In looking at the racial breakdown of those experiencing homelessness in relation to the racial breakdown in the general population and those living in poverty, disparate impacts along racial lines become evident.
According to the American Community Survey 2017 annual estimates prepared by the Census Bureau, about 8,960,161 people live in the state of New Jersey, and 10.5% (938,252 persons) of New Jersey residents are living below the poverty line. There is a strong correlation between poverty and homelessness, however, the racial disparities evident in the population indicate that poverty alone does not determine who will experience homelessness. Given the disparities present in the data, it is evident that systemic racism plays a significant role in factors contributing to homelessness. 
  • Persons identifying as Black or African American are overrepresented in the population experiencing homelessness and living below the poverty level. While 13% of the general population, persons identifying as Black or African American are 24% of the population in poverty and 49.4% of the population experiencing homelessness.
  • Persons identifying as Asian have the lowest rates of homelessness making up 9% of the state population, 6% of the population living below the poverty level, and .7% of the population experiencing homelessness.
In addressing the racial disparity within New Jersey’s homeless population, it is critical that we not just focus on the individuals who are experiencing homelessness but that we acknowledge and address the systemic racism that contributed to be a significant factor contributing to homelessness in New Jersey.
And for those Black and African American individuals who stabilize their lives and move out of homelessness, it is important to recognize that they have overcome systemic based racism and why other indivdiuals experiencing homelessness face additional obstacles and challenges stemming from their race.  And it is o.k. to be specific and give specific examples of what these obstacles and challenges are.  
Axel-Lute concludes,
“Let’s not define people and places by their deficits. But let’s also commit to telling the truth about how those deficits got there.”