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Adopting a Racial Equity Lens to Address Homelessness

Updated: Jun 5

The increase in rates of homelessness in the past four years has proven that homelessness is not only a social or economic issue, but one of race as well. According to a Chapin Hall report, Black youth have an 83 percent higher risk of experiencing homelessness in a given year compared to youth of other races. A separate study, examining racial inequities in homelessness in eight communities around the US, found that Black youth accounted for 75.9 percent of young adults 18 to 24 years old experiencing homelessness. The increased prevalence of homelessness amongst this marginalized group indicates the broad challenges in our current systems that interventions have failed to address and may even reinforce. It is now more crucial than ever to understand these barriers and support Black youth experiencing homelessness in their part toward housing stability.

The racism embedded into the very fabric of our country has been critical to an intersectional examination of race and homelessness. Structural racism prompts systems that perpetuate racial inequity and reproduce racial discrimination, failing to provide equal opportunities for people of all races. Racial discrimination has limited economic opportunities for Black and African Americans, compounded by prevalent experiences of mass incarceration, barriers to education, generational poverty, and the loss of family and support networks. The foster care, health care, employment, and homelessness systems have also reinforced racial inequity and barriers to stability. Black individuals experiencing homelessness are subject to inequitable outcomes due to racism across intersecting systems.

Racial discrimination has created negative associations surrounding people of color experiencing homelessness. In a California study that examined the needs of households of color experiencing homelessness, participants expressed feelings of shame and personal responsibility for becoming unstably housed. Participants repeatedly described themselves as “lazy” and “irresponsible,” attributing their situation to poor choices, bad luck, and mental health struggles. Yet, when researchers looked into participants’ backgrounds, patterns showcasing structural barriers emerged, including accumulated adverse health outcomes, mass incarceration, and generational poverty. Yet the effect of discrimination and the lack of empathy towards youth of color experiencing homelessness leads the general population to act, subconsciously or not, in a way that narrows social and developmental opportunities for these youth.

Thus structural racism shapes the experiences of people of color struggling to become stably housed. Throughout the 20th century, discriminatory housing policies restricted the economic mobility of Black Americans. Tangentially, structural racism has now evolved to permeate systems of access for people of color experiencing homelessness, exacerbating rates of poverty and homelessness for this population. The local response systems and their effectiveness determine a person’s ability to successfully escape homelessness. Current models have proven to be poorly equipped for the identification of social and financial disparities within support systems.

Inadequate access to resources and systems of support mask the discrimination and racism encountered when accessing services. Respondents from a study on racial inequity and homelessness shared that unconscious bias affected their treatment within the homelessness system and that they were treated differently than white peers seeking treatment and support. These same researchers found that Black young adults were 69 percent more likely to experience homelessness continually than their white counterparts, returning again and again to these same networks even after brief stints of housing security. Consequently, current systems will continue to reproduce and heighten the barriers encountered by youth of color experiencing homelessness.

In response, homelessness service leaders and people with lived (and racialized) experiences of homelessness have been working together to develop a framework for building racial equity into community interventions. This framework highlights four critical areas for these interventions: equitable system decision-making power, lived experience, quality data, and system outcomes. The current response system for homelessness involves a variety of stakeholders with decision-making power. Institutions should strive to diversify staff, leadership, and other stakeholders to represent people of color and people with lived experiences of homelessness. Making room at the table for these voices ensures dignity and empowerment for each person experiencing homelessness, and a better chance at equitable solutions. Additionally, Institutions should invest in training communities on antiracism and racial equity–based program design to unlearn the biases that have prevented successful transitions into financial and housing stability for Black Americans.

These interventions can achieve large-scale success by prioritizing data and outcomes. Capturing accurate demographics of underserved populations can help better identify their specific and immediate needs. With this data, analysis-driven interventions may effectively solve the problems. More than that, these metrics are key to understanding how and why our current systems are failing. Investing time and resources in these four areas can assist in expanding opportunities for more affordable and equitable housing for people of color.

Institutions must actively seek to dismantle racial inequity within social systems and reduce high rates of homelessness for Black Americans. This avenue of addressing homelessness is imperative to modifying and improving how each system engages with those experiencing homelessness, from frontline services to executive decision-making. Implementing a racial equity lens in response to homelessness will require the same for intersecting systems, such as the criminal justice system, the foster care system, the health care system, and more. Transforming these systems will require an effort to acknowledge structural racism, identify the barriers that impact people of color, and enforce structural changes. Prioritizing this response will ensure that those with the most significant barriers can access equitable resources for housing and financial stability.

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