Study Investigates Connections Between Race and Homelessness

A face composite, made up of slivers of many other photos.

Jeffery Murray

A recent literature review revealed an overrepresentation of Black people in the homeless community and a lack of sufficient research to identify race-specific causes of and solutions to homelessness. Dr. Marian Moser Jones of the University of Maryland School of Public Health found that African-Americans make up 40.4 percent of the total homeless population, yet only 12.5 percent of general population.

Jones reviewed 34 social and behavioral science research articles studying homelessness and race between 1985 and 2015. She said she began in the 1980s because that was when dialogue about homelessness as a social issue and a defined population began in the United States.

This data is inconclusive without further research. But the literature suggests that the experience and causes of homelessness differ for people of different perceived racial backgrounds. “What’s conclusive is that African-Americans are overrepresented in the homeless population and overrepresented among the incarcerated population and that those populations overlap and that there is evidence that incarceration increases your risk of homelessness,” Jones said in an interview with Street Sense.

Some research she surveyed suggests that the causes for homelessness differ between perceived races; social discrimination and disadvantage could play a larger role in Black homelessness, while individual illness or disability could be a bigger contributor to white homelessness. Hispanic individuals appear to be underrepresented in the homeless population because they are more likely to live with family members, though incarceration history is a significant cause of homelessness. Hispanic incarcerated veterans are the ethnic group most likely to be chronically homeless, one study found.

This review also suggests implications for programs that aim to help homeless individuals. One study examined in Jones’s article deals with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing, a housing voucher program for homeless veterans. The study found that Black veterans who received a caseworker fared better than Black veterans who only received a voucher. “The caseworker mattered more for Black veterans than white veterans,” Jones explained.

Jones findings are not news to service providers and advocacy organizations working on homelessness – yet funding and federal policy seem to be behind the curve. In 2014, The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) sent a report titled “Racial Discrimination in Housing and Homelessness in the United States” to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The report framed housing discrimination as a human rights issue to argue that the U.S. government must take intentional corrective steps to remedy legacies of racial inequality. Both the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and U.N. Human Rights Committee recognized this disparate impact on communities of color and called on the United States to take steps to remedy the disparity, according to Eric Tars, a senior attorney at NLCHP.

“The lack of affordable housing and lack of adequate housing across the country falls more heavily on communities of color,” Tars said. “The criminalization of homelessness has a disparate impact on communities of color, but especially on the African-American community.” He added that homeless people of color are especially vulnerable to the effects of biased policing because living in public spaces creates more opportunities for police contact.

Since the 2014 report to the U.N, HUD has added funding criteria for local continuums of care that encourages federal funding recipients to implement steps to end the criminalization of homelessness and put out new guidance on the use of criminal records as part of housing applications when the use of criminal history has a discriminatory effect. The  U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness released guidelines in 2015 instructing municipalities not to break up homeless encampments without providing permanent housing alternatives, and the Department of Justice filed a brief calling the criminalization of sleeping outside unconstitutional. Tars views these actions as steps for reducing how criminalization disproportionately affects homeless people of color.

Race and discrimination are integral to addressing homelessness, in part due to a history of the historical segregation of cities and public housing, according to Megan Hustings, director of the advocacy organization National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). She said NCH incorporates issues of race into their public education work, noting that most of their speakers are African-American. “We try to really present the true face of homelessness through our Speakers Bureau and also our other programs,” Hustings said.

The legacy of structural racism includes the lack of affordable housing, unequal educational outcomes, low wages, and generational wealth gaps between families of color and white families. “There’s a number of ways that policy could work to address the issue of race and poverty,” Hustings said, suggesting one way would be to increase affordable housing, she said.

Before obtaining her doctorate in public health, Marian Moser Jones worked as a health and science journalist. She returned to academia to become an expert and make a difference. “When you’re interviewing and writing about other people’s work, you can publicize and disseminate information, but you can’t be involved in producing useful knowledge. Especially useful knowledge to highlight social injustice or to help organizations improve,” she said.

Jones became interested in homelessness when studying anthropologist Dr. Kim Hopper in New York, where she participated in the annual point-in-time count of homeless persons. “I really saw homelessness up close,” Jones said. She conducted research on early homelessness advocacy in New York City in the 1980s, and published a series of articles, including “Creating a Science of Homelessness during the Reagan Era.

Interviews with white advocates who began working on homelessness in the 80s sparked Jones’s interest in race, because many of these homelessness advocacy pioneers noted that the prevailing representation of the homeless population as older white alcoholic men did not match the homeless young Black men that they observed. However, according to Jones, her interviewees were hesitant to make homelessness appear to be a problem of the Black community. “They didn’t want to talk about it because they didn’t want to make it a problem of ‘the other,’” she said. “They wanted to make it a problem that we all face, that anyone could be homeless.”

When she moved to New York City, Jones was briefly homeless when her housing arrangements fell through. However, her friends were able to provide a place to stay, which she said is not always the case for the networks of marginalized people. “Communities of color have fewer resources than white communities in general,” Jones said. “If their family has limited resources already, it is already in a difficult place because the community itself has experienced discrimination over generations, people are less able to take them in.”

Jones wants to see a greater dialogue about homelessness, further research on homelessness in the context of structural racism, and policies that specifically address how people of color experience homelessness. “Racial injustice and social injustice are connected to homelessness, it’s not something that affects everyone equally,” she said. “If it’s a problem that disproportionately affects men of color and people of color, maybe we need to make the programs a little more culturally competent, a little more targeted towards the needs of people of color.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) collects data on the demographics of homeless individuals. Their 2016 point-in-time count found that 39.1 percent of homeless people were African-American, and 48.3 percent were white. Although the majority of homeless people counted by HUD were white, 45 percent of people living in sheltered locations were African-American.

Although HUD recognizes this racial disparity, it has not yet researched how to address it. “There is a discussion in our annual homelessness assessment report about the racial makeup of the poverty population, as compared with the racial composition of the homeless population,” said Supervisory Public Affairs Specialist Brian Sullivan. “There is no exploration as to why that is.”

Continuums of Care — HUD’s competitive block-grant system for funding local networks of service providers — are not ranked on race-specific prevention strategies for homelessness. However, under the HUD rule on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, grantees that receive federal funding are required to affirmatively advance the Fair Housing Act of 1968, promoting fair housing and analyzing possible reasons for a lack of equal housing opportunities.

One of the studies included in Jones’s literature review found that Black and Latino families were more likely to live in inadequate or crowded housing. Latino families were more likely to live “doubled-up” with multiple families per home than Black families, when faced with homelessness.

Keeping in mind these implications, some organizations claim that HUD’s definition of homelessness is misleading. “The Law Center has for a long time believed that HUD is using an artificially narrow definition of homelessness that excludes families living in doubled-up situations or in short-term low-cost motels,” Tars said. The Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services use a broader definition. “The HUD point in time street count is based on a flawed system, but it allows them to say that the numbers are going down,” Tars said.

Hustings agreed that there is a lack of comprehensive data on homelessness, and called HUD’s annual point-in-time count incomplete. According to Hustings, up to 75 percent of shelter beds do not receive HUD funding. “We appreciate when there are researchers, academics that are willing to invest the times to do some research because we in the advocacy world, we just don’t have the capacity to do that,” Hustings said.

Brian Sullivan says that HUD considers different federal agencies’ definitions of homelessness when giving their estimates to Congress, including the effect of being rent-burdened, or making less than 50 percent of the median income and either spending more than 1/3 of income on rent or living in substandard housing. He characterized the point-in-time count as a limited method of measuring homelessness, a snapshot taken on one night that is supplemented by other means of data collection.

Other research Jones encountered found differences in the Black and white homeless populations, including among homeless youth. The studies suggested that homeless Black people have higher rates of drug use but lower rates of alcohol abuse and mental illness diagnoses than white homeless people. Black women who become homeless are more likely to have experienced sexual abuse, while white women are more likely to be victims of physical abuse. Meanwhile, Black homeless adults are more likely to have experienced poverty in childhood, while white homeless adults are more likely to have experienced abuse.

Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson and Congressman Alcee Hastings co-chair the Congressional Homelessness Caucus, which raises awareness within Congress on issues of homelessness and leads efforts to fund programs that assist homeless Americans. “We explore homelessness as a multi-faceted issue that affects individuals and families of all backgrounds, regardless of ethnicity, race, or age,” Congresswoman Johnson wrote in a statement to Street Sense. “Past briefings have focused on various housing policies, trauma-informed care, and increasing coordination of homelessness policy across federal agencies.”

When it comes to public health, the relationship between homelessness and perceived race has concrete consequences. Since both homeless people and Black people in the United States have higher mortality rates, in the report Jones describes Black homeless people as facing a “double dose of vulnerability.”

“It’s enough to at least start a policy dialogue that goes beyond the race-blind rhetoric that we’ve had in the past,” Jones said.  “For me, it’s sort of like waving a flag to say ‘hey look over here, we need to start looking at this, we need to start asking these questions and talking about it.’”

The image featured with this article is a composite of 27 portraits of homeless or formerly-homeless Street Sense vendors.

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