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Black and Homeless: Reflecting on Racial Inequities in America’s Homeless Population

Mikayla Woodberry, an Alumna of Breaktime, has a blunt message about how our nation is failing Black Americans experiencing homelessness:

“People need to stop judging, attacking, and incarcerating…they need to find a better way to see what somebody really needs.”

Woodberry, who herself is Black, serves on the Breaktime Board, works as a counselor at the Boston Public Health Commission, and hopes to work long-term in the public health space. She is therefore both personally and professionally familiar with the intersection of race and homelessness.

At Breaktime, a Boston-based organization that empowers young adults with purposeful transitional employment, we are also intimately aware of the racial inequities that plague our society, particularly in the realm of homelessness. Black Americans are grossly overrepresented among people experiencing homelessness. Nationally, Black Americans account for 40% of the homeless population despite making up only 13% of the general population. In Boston, where 25% of residents identify as Black, over 47% of the homeless population is Black, a figure that has grown significantly from 33% in the year 2000, even as the percentage of Bostonians who are Black has remained relatively constant since the turn of the century.

For many Black Americans experiencing homelessness, race-based inequities began in childhood. Woodberry recalls facing discrimination as she navigated the college application process. As a METCO student in a majority-white Boston suburb, Mikayla was discouraged by guidance counselors from applying to higher-ranked colleges: “they didn’t think I had the grades or the financial resources, even though that was not necessarily true.” Mikayla’s experience reflects the barriers people of color face in the American education system—including discrimination by school administration, excessively large class sizes, lower-quality curriculum materials, or under-qualified teachers—that manifest themselves in unequal educational outcomes. Success in school is inversely related to homelessness, which young people with less than a high school diploma or GED are 346% more likely to experience. Similarly, childhood poverty plays an enormous role in the racial disparities among the homeless population. African American children experience poverty at rates more than triple those for white children, and Black individuals in general are more than twice as likely to live below the poverty line compared to their white counterparts. Childhood poverty and the plethora of associated health complications—which include behavioral and emotional issues, hindered cognitive development, and increased chance of hospitalization and chronic disease—systemically squash many Black childrens' ability to live healthy lives and access to opportunities, contributing to increased rates of homelessness in adulthood.

The criminal justice system, too, breeds inequities, a grim reality Mikayla sees in her job. Two or three police cars sit parked outside the shelter where she works at all times, and undercover police officers patrol the surrounding neighborhood in search of criminal behavior. Often, additional police cars roll up next to the shelter to drop off people just freed from jail or prison, rendering them homeless the second they escape incarceration. And, according to Mikayla, “[the shelter] is where they stay.” Those with a criminal background find themselves stuck in a seemingly insurmountable cycle, unable to secure stable housing or employment, with no clear path out. This close intertwinement of the prison system and homelessness Mikayla observes is true on a national scale, too. Black individuals are incarcerated at over 5 times the rate that whites are, and in eleven states, at least 1 out of every 20 black males aged 18 or older is in prison. Once freed, formerly-incarcerated people face discrimination as they apply for housing or jobs, and they often find themselves removed from whatever support networks they once had in their lives. Consequently, those who have been to prison once are more than 7 times as likely to experience homelessness compared to the general public; individuals incarcerated more than once are over 13 times as likely to be homeless.

Mikayla also points to mental health challenges as a factor contributing to racial disparities in America’s homeless population. It has long been documented that many of those on the street struggle with mental illnesses, and a 2008 survey of 25 U.S. mayors found that mental illness was the third-largest cause of homelessness. White and Black people experience mental illnesses at comparable rates, yet white people are significantly more likely to see treatment than Black people are. Woodberry attributes part of this discrepancy to stigma in the Black community around mental health issues, a complicated phenomenon with no single explanation. Some are wary to rely on a medical system that has historically exploited and mistreated people of color; others turn to the church for healing. Because of the dangerous effects of mental illness left untreated, Woodberry urges her peers of color to not “be afraid to seek out the help” they may need. But even for African Americans who wish to pursue treatment for mental health conditions, financial barriers may prevent them from receiving adequate help, another harmful consequence of the racial wealth gap.

The inaccessibility of mental health resources to those who need them most is closely tied to another concern Mikayla highlights: the shelters located in communities of color are often underfunded, under-resourced, and overcrowded. Case managers work with an unbearably large number of individuals, Mikayla notes, so it often takes people months before they receive whatever help they need. She suggests that these shelters would greatly benefit from additional resources that would allow them to more effectively tailor their services to residents’ individual needs, especially with regard to mental health.

Finally, discriminatory housing and lending policies contribute to the overrepresentation of Black people in our nation’s homeless population. Beginning in the New Deal era, the Federal Housing Administration systemically enforced segregation on a national level, confining Black families to select neighborhoods with lower-quality and lower-value homes. Barred from owning property in more prosperous all-white neighborhoods, African American families were unable to reap the enormous benefits of the home equity appreciation that came with owning a house in the suburbs—one of the most powerful builders of generational wealth. In 2016, for example, the total wealth of the median Black family in America was less than one tenth of that of the median white family—even though Black families’ income is over 60% of white families’. Moreover, African Americans continue to live in neighborhoods that have fewer resources and opportunities, increasing their chances of experiencing homelessness.

For Timothy Wynn, a Black resident of Los Angeles, the discriminatory housing policies his family encountered played a major role in his experiencing homelessness later in life. His parents came to Los Angeles in search of opportunity but were forced into an undesirable neighborhood rife with violence, brutal policing, and unemployment, creating an unstable environment for Wynn’s upbringing. Despite having high aspirations—Wynn hoped to become a doctor—he never truly escaped the word in which he grew up. After being arrested on drug-related charges and having his mother pass away to cancer, Wynn experienced homelessness, depression, and health problems. Fortunately, Wynn has since found a supportive residential program, is now stably housed, and hopes to pursue a career working with the deaf. His story serves as a reminder that decades-old discriminatory policies, though largely removed from our legal system in theory, continue to harm real people and their dreams.

Created in the New Deal Era, this map of Boston segregated neighborhoods into categories ranging from “First Grade” to “Fourth Grade” and was used to enforce the systematic exclusion of Black Americans from certain areas of the city. Image source: Mapping Inequality

This is far from a comprehensive list of factors that together shape the racial inequities in America’s homeless population, and none work in isolation, as Timothy Wynn’s story so clearly demonstrates. Incarceration, for example, often exacerbates existing mental illnesses, expounding on the challenges faced by the formerly incarcerated. Discriminatory housing policies lead to overpoliced neighborhoods, in turn increasing the frequency of arrests and prison sentences. And the understaffed nature of shelters concentrated in communities of color makes it harder for people of color to access the help they need. Ultimately, any attempts to solve our nation’s chronic homelessness crisis and the corresponding racial injustices must involve intentional action to dismantle the interconnected web of systems in place that harm people of color.

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