Homelessness, most often, is a product of systemic racism, advocates say

Photo of activists gathered in the NoMa neighborhood

Members of the People for Fairness Coalition, the Ward 6 Mutual Aid Network, and students from Gonzaga University pass out toiletries, socks, snacks, water, and other supplies while conducting outreach at the NOMA encampments on L Street. Photo courtesy of Qaadir El-Amin

India Frazier spent a weekend in early June watching hundreds of demonstrators in the District protest police brutality and systemic racism from outside her temporary housing complex near 14th Street.

Frazier is currently enrolled at N Street Village, a local organization that provides housing and supportive services for homeless and low-income women in D.C. She’s a strong supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and the work activists are doing to reform policing.

“It was something for you to see,” she said. “I saw so many young people protesting, and it wasn’t violent at all, it was like everybody was together, everybody was arm-in-arm and marching and letting them know ‘look, we’re serious about changing this police brutality situation.’”

Following the killing of George Floyd, thousands of people have called for police departments across the country and in D.C. to be defunded and the money reallocated toward mental health services, housing, schools, and other social programs, many of which impact the homeless community. The city has increased funding for homeless services, like permanent housing, in the past, but activists say it’s not enough. Many of them, as well as local nonprofits, want to see the city allocate more toward ending homelessness, because homelessness, too, is a symptom of systemic racism.

[Read more: Study investigates connections between race and homelessness]

Frazier said she experienced police brutality when she was about 33. She said a police officer tackled her to the ground and broke her front tooth in the process. The experience made her fearful of law enforcement. She wants to see big changes come to policing and the system at large, especially now, as her 9-year-old grandson says he wants to be a police officer when he grows up.

Fraizer spoke to him after the protests.

“I asked him what did he learn, and he said that ‘Black lives matter.’ He said that ‘Black lives matter,’ that he wants to grow up and don’t feel like he has to look over his shoulder,” she said.

Nationally, Black people comprise 40% of the homeless population, despite being only 13% of the general public. In the District, Black residents make up nearly 48% of the general population, but 88% of people experiencing homelessness. To many working to end homelessness, systemic racism is part and parcel to chronic homelessness.

“Homelessness is caused by racism. Full stop,” says Jesse Rabinowitz, Advocacy Campaign Manager at Miriam’s Kitchen. According to Rabinowitz, racism not only forces people into homelessness, but keeps them trapped there longer by making it harder to find a place to live, secure a job, or gain access to supportive services.

“We will not end homelessness without addressing racial equity,” Rabinowitz said. “They are two sides of the same coin.”

Photo of signs at a Black Lives Matter protest
Demonstrators hold Black Lives Matter signs during a protest in the District. Photo courtesy of Tyrone Turner / DCist/WAMU

For example, it’s well documented that Black Americans are still more likely than their Hispanic and white counterparts to be imprisoned. In part, this is attributed to systemic inequality in policing. People with criminal records often have a harder time securing a job to pay their rent and fall into homelessness.

The connections between imprisonment and homelessness then continue through ticketing, arrest, and jailing under laws that criminalize sleeping or sitting outside, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

Frazier was incarcerated for three years and homeless for five before arriving at N Street Village. Her transition out of prison was riddled with housing insecurity, and it took her five years to find temporary housing. She wants to see more done about situations like hers and for prisons to offer additional help with resume building and job applications for Black people exiting jail.

“There’s a lot of people that are coming home from prison that really don’t have any programs,” she said. “If they’re not going through a halfway house they’re coming straight out to the street, and when they come straight out to the street they don’t have any programs helping them with housing, helping them with a job.”

The D.C. Jail, where Frazier was incarcerated, does offer inmates help with resume building and interviewing through outside organizations, but those services have been found to lack sufficient resources. Black women have also been found to face additional challenges while attempting to secure work after release, such as managing child care arrangements, custody requirements, large gaps in their work histories, and mental and physical health issues.

Addressing Homelessness And Racial Equity

In the District, several organizations working to end homelessness find themselves grappling with racial equity as well.

N Street Village CEO Schroeder Stribling said the organization is trying to be mindful of the needs of Black women in particular during the protests and pandemic.

Stribling wants N Street Village to prioritize its first available housing opportunities for its most vulnerable clients, who are overwhelmingly older African American women. She said the organization is already well-practiced at mental health work, but it’s important that it stands in solidarity with Black women.

“That’s part of trauma recovery for any individual — until you feel safe you can’t really focus on anything else, you can’t really focus on housing or vocation or getting clean or getting the health issue taken care of that you’ve ignored,” she said. “You have to feel safe before you can do anything else, housing is a part of that, but also the messages that you’re getting from the world around you.”

Since nearly 90% of people experiencing homelessness in the District are Black adults, ending homelessness in Black communities is a matter of ending homelessness altogether, said Lara Pukatch, director of advocacy for Miriam’s Kitchen. Though the city has allocated some resources for just that, she said it needs to do more.

[Read more: Housing discrimination disproportionately impacts communities of color and perpetuates cycles of homelessness]

Miriam’s Kitchen does not collect data from its guests regularly, but Pukatch estimates that it overwhelmingly works with older Black males between 50 and 60 years old. She said one of the organization’s biggest advocacy priorities is securing more local funding for housing for individuals and families experiencing chronic homelessness, specifically permanent supportive housing. It also pushes for policies that help prevent homelessness and reduce barriers to exiting homelessness, such as more affordable housing.

Photo of India Frazier at N Street Village
India Frazier, left, has been enrolled at N Street Village’s holistic housing program for more than a year. Photo courtesy of N Street Village.

Pukatch said about five years ago the organization took a hard look at racial equity and racism as a root cause for homelessness.

Those conversations inspired changes within Miriam’s Kitchen like Black-only spaces, where people can process ongoing events and talk about changes they want to see within the organization; racial equality impact analysis, that ensures policies the organization advocates for promote racially equitable outcomes; and an advocacy fellowship that employs the knowledge and experiences of someone who has lived homelessness.

“Housing ends homelessness and over 1,400 individuals, most of whom are Black, are currently in need of life-saving housing,” she wrote in an email.

Qaadir El-Amin was homeless for 15 years. During part of that time, he worked as a street vendor. Now, working with the People for Fairness Coalition and other groups, he’s helping ensure vendors can pay their bills during the pandemic.

El-Amin was previously an advocacy fellow with Miriam’s Kitchen, working with the organization on its mission to end chronic homelessness as someone who lived the experience. He secured permanent housing about five years ago through Miriam’s Kitchen and considers himself “one of the lucky ones” who was able to find housing.

The racial equity groups and community organizers he works with have discussed defunding the police before the conversation garnered national interest, he said. Part of that work starts with looking at government systems and addressing decisions and laws based on racism, like redlining.

[Read more: Traveling exhibit visualizes redlining and systemic inequality]

During the 1930s, Black families were systemically denied housing mortgages that, in part, prevented them from generating wealth through homeownership. And though it was outlawed with the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, its ripple effects continue to perpetuate wealth inequalities across Black and other communities of color.

“Keeping Black people poor, personally, is a way of keeping Black people here,” he said. “And to me, the racism stands out to me in the way of ‘F’ Black people.”

For El-Amin, big change starts with using vacant apartments to house the homeless and allocating more funding toward current District services working to end homelessness, while ensuring that people who are passionate about helping others are applying and being hired for jobs working to end chronic homelessness.

“That will eliminate a big chunk of homelessness, of chronic homelessness,” he said.

Photo of Qaadir El-Amin.
Qaadir El-Amin poses for a photo at Miriam’s Kitchen. Photo courtesy of Miriam’s Kitchen.

Ending Homelessness Through The City’s Budget

While nonprofits have made an impact on reducing homelessness, many advocates say the city’s budget needs to do more. The city’s budget is the number one policy tool for ending homelessness, said Jesse Rabinowitz, advocacy campaign manager at Miriam’s Kitchen. The D.C. Council held its first fiscal year 2021 budget vote last month and allocated approximately $28 million for permanent supportive housing, homeless outreach services, and more. Nearly $10 million will go toward permanent housing for individuals and families in the District — about half as much as last year.

Part of that revenue was taken from a tax break program for tech companies, which the council partially cut last year to fund permanent supportive housing, homeless outreach, and other supportive services. Advocates at the time supported the cuts, like Joanna Blotner, D.C. campaign manager with Jews United for Justice, who said boosting funding for such programs would “advance socially just spending priorities.”

Rabinowitz echoed these sentiments, but said even with this reallocation of funding, from corporate tax breaks to housing, there is still a disconnect between how the city says it wants to end homelessness and how much it’s investing. He said the money the council has so far allocated toward ending homelessness is not enough.

Rabinowitz added that putting money toward specific other initiatives, like building a streetcar, is part of the problem.

“I think in order for us to live into our progressive values and live into our commitment to racial equity, we have to make some hard decisions. To me, those decisions mean prioritizing people’s basic needs over things like the streetcar,” he said.

Earlier this month, lawmakers did not move forward with an amendment to transfer $35 million from a streetcar expansion plan along Benning Rd. NE to public housing repairs. At-large Councilmember Robert White, who proposed the amendment and has heard these discussions on the council for three years, said at the time “there are other ways to get around,” while stressing the dire conditions of public housing in the city.

“The fact that the council wasn’t able to get the majority to say ‘you know what, urgent public housing repairs should be prioritized above a streetcar most people don’t support’ to me is just another example of how far we have to go,” Rabinowitz said.

Some still support the expansion work that’s gone into the streetcar project so far. Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray told the council his ward is anxious to see the project finished, according to Washington Business Journal, and further delays would slow “all the economic development work we’ve been doing along that corridor.” Ultimately, Councilmember White fell short of the necessary votes to transfer the funds from the streetcar project to public housing.

The council did allocate nearly $23 million toward housing to end homelessness last fiscal year, the “highest funding level ever for homeless services,” according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. Still, some activists felt it didn’t go far enough.

Recent protests to defund D.C.’s police department resulted in a reduction of the mayor’s proposed police budget increase of 3% to about 1.6%. Some lawmakers said this a big step in a years-long effort to reduce police funding, while activists maintained the council didn’t do enough.

The Way Home, a campaign to end chronic homelessness in D.C., recommended the council add nearly $21 million to the $15.5 million Mayor Muriel Bowser initially allocated for housing in her budget proposal last year. With help from the tech company tax incentive, the council’s final budget allocated nearly $23 million toward housing, but still fell short of the organization’s recommendations by about 40% and funded around 36% of what it estimates is needed to end chronic homelessness in the city.

Rabinowitz wants not just to see more money put toward housing and supportive services, but for lawmakers to grasp how racism pushes people into homelessness, and then work to upend the system and its root causes.

“To me, that’s really where this conversation about racism and racial equity is important. Because until we stop the flow of people into homelessness we’re just going to keep treading water,” he said.

The article was first published by DCist on Aug. 6.

Issues |Civil Rights|Housing|Systemic Racism

Region |Washington DC

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