Today, over 500,000 people experience homelessness in the United States on a given night. Most of these people are Black and more generally People of Color. Homelessness is just one form of injustice that plagues Black Americans. Recognizing Black History Month, it is essential that homelessness’s discriminatory origins are uncovered.
By the end of World War II, the American economy was experiencing a historical resurgence. At this time, however, economic opportunity was not spread evenly throughout our society. White Americans began to migrate to suburbs and adapt their lifestyles to suit emerging economic standards. At the same time, Black Americans were discriminated against on issues such as access to housing. For this reason, Black Americans often experience homelessness at higher rates than their White peers—the legacy of past generations’ exclusion from home ownership results in an unprecedented percentage of people experiencing homelessness being Black today.
Beginning in 1933, the concept of “redlining” was a byproduct of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Home Owners Loan Corporation. These policies, he hoped, would prevent people from losing their homes during the Great Depression, one of America’s most severe economic recessions. In 1937, the policies Roosevelt set forth fell under the umbrella of the Federal Housing Association, or FHA. The FHA set specific standards for the provision of mortgages. This involved determining which investments were too risky to be reasonable. The term redlining emerged from physical red lines drawn onto maps to indicate locations of less affluent and predominantly POC communities which posed risky investments. Later serving as a method through which financial institutions discriminated against Black people, these red lines impacted the formation of neighborhoods and, as a consequence, wealth distribution. In this regard, redlining was a method through which Black people were prevented from accessing material wealth.
Throughout the twentieth century, banks and financial institutions restricted access to mortgages and loans on the basis of race. Redlining was theoretically outlawed in Lyndon B. Johnson’s Civil Rights Act. Yet he practice would continue regardless, and the legacy set by these discriminatory patterns was difficult to erase. A lack of investment and lending in Black communities changed neighborhoods. Banks refused to provide mortgages and financial loans to people living in these neighborhoods, causing financial adversity and a significant barrier to home ownership.*
To this day, the effects of redlining are still tangible and noteworthy, especially in regard to homelessness. For generations, the process of redlining actively prevented Black people from living in certain residential areas. Because funding toward schools and public resources is correlated with property values within an area, Black people thus also had access to fewer and less-funded community resources, such as schools, parks, and otherwise. Moreover, a lack of access to home ownership also hindered the accumulation of generational wealth, leading to economic stratification. All of these cultural forces are causes for disproportionate rates of homelessness in Black Americans.
Redlining is not the only reason for the disproportionately high rates of homelessness in people of color. Rather, it is one example of systemic oppression resulting in homelessness. Other examples include food access, poverty, patterns of incarceration, and more. From all of these forms of oppression, the cycle of homelessness renews itself. And for that reason, to end homelessness, we must also end racial inequities.
At Breaktime, an organization seeking to end homelessness through transitional employment, we are establishing an anti-racist method to ending one’s experiences with homelessness. At the same time, we are seeking to break down the social structures that cause homelessness. As an organization seeking to end homelessness, Breaktime is an anti-racist organization. One cannot challenge the existence homelessness without challenging the racist systems that uphold it.
In his book, Rothstein argues the impacts of redlining will disappear anytime soon without anti-racist intervention. Redlining is no longer a formal process, but racism and its legacy plagues people of color to this day.
*To learn more about Redlining and its social impacts, consider reading Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, a non-fiction book on which much of this blog post was based.