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Homelessness a Racial Matter: Why Are Black Families Over-represented in Homeless Shelters?

Ralph da Costa Nunez:   President, Institute For Children, Poverty & Homelessness – Posted: 03/14/2012 5:23 pm


When U.S. attorney general Eric Holder described the United States as a “nation of cowards” when it comes to openly discussing race, he was lambasted. But he was absolutely right. And one area where race has long been an issue spoken about in hushed tones is the racial disparity among homeless families in the United States.

But a report by The Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, “Intergenerational Disparities Experienced by Homeless Black Families,” highlighting disparities among black and white families in the United States, has gotten people talking about this topic.

The response has been overwhelming. From newspapers in many of the 37 cities across the country where statistics show black families are greatly over-represented in shelters to, and right here on The Huffington Post the conversation has started. And the report continues to go viral on Facebook and Twitter with people of all races and backgrounds sharing the facts.

It’s no wonder. The statistics are stark: In 2010, 1 in 141 black family members stayed in a homeless shelter, a rate 7 times higher than for white families. Black people in families make up 12.1 percent of the U.S. family population, but represented 38.8 percent of sheltered people in families in 2010. In comparison, 65.8 percent of people in families in the general population are white, while white family members only occupied 28.6 percent of family shelter beds in 2010.

Homelessness is primarily a poverty issue. In 2010, nearly one-quarter (23.3 percent) of black families lived in poverty, three times the rate of white families (7.1 percent). But the issue goes deeper than that. And there is more to it than that. Understanding why blacks are over-represented in homeless shelters requires an examination of the longstanding and inter-related social and structural issues facing the black community.

As the report noted, and highlighted in its analysis of the report, in 2009, the median wealth of white households was 20 times that of blacks ($113,149 versus $5,677). Financial assets serve as a crucial buffer in times of economic hardship, covering unexpected health expenses and preventing loss of housing when unemployed. Access to additional funds improves living conditions at present and during retirement. Intergenerational wealth transfers can enhance the economic circumstances of younger relatives, for example through investments in children’s education, inheritances, and monetary gifts.

Lower educational attainment among blacks, in particular black males, is a barrier to gaining any employment and especially to qualifying for jobs in well-compensated sectors. Black males earn bachelor’s degrees or higher at half the rate of white males (15.6 percent compared to 32 percent). Employment disparities rooted in subtle forms of discrimination persist even with educational advancement.

In 2010, blacks with an associate degree experienced a higher unemployment rate than whites with a high school diploma (10.8 percent and 9.5 percent, respectively). Furthermore, a male black employee with a bachelor’s degree or higher was paid one-quarter (25.4 percent) less on average in weekly full-time salary ($1,010) in 2010 compared to a male white worker ($1,354) with the same level of education.

And throughout U.S. history, housing discrimination has been ever-present, both in the form of official government policies and societal attitudes. Federal policies that reduced the stock of affordable housing through urban renewal projects displaced a disproportionate number of poor blacks living concentrated in cities to other substandard urban neighborhoods.

Residential segregation, which affects black households to a greater extent than other minorities, perpetuates poverty patterns by isolating blacks in areas that lack employment opportunities and services, and experience higher crime and poverty rates. Blacks are also overrepresented in the criminal justice system, which increases the risk of homelessness and developmental delays among affected children.

This report raises the question of why family homelessness is a racial issue. This phenomenon is not new, but is rarely discussed. Although government-sanctioned racial discrimination may be a relic of the past, the finding that blacks are overrepresented in shelter when compared to whites demonstrates that blacks continue to face prejudice and substantial access barriers to decent employment, education, health care, and housing not experienced by whites.

It takes a community to end homelessness. Family shelters can — and do — function as part of the front-line combating bias and providing opportunities for families who fall through the cracks. However, it will take more than a few service providers to call attention to the elephant in the room. It will take all of us as a nation to voice our intolerance of policies that make it difficult for some to rise out of poverty.

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