The Link Between Racism and Homelessness 

When considering homelessness in the United States, it is important to remember that poverty is not actually the biggest indicator of whether or not someone could experience homelessness in their lifetime. As it turns out, race, not economic status, is the biggest indicator of homelessness in this country. 

Black, Indigineous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are disproportionately represented among individuals and families experiencing homelessness, with the highest rates among Black and Indigineous communities. Research indicates that poverty alone doesn’t account for these dramatic inequities because the number of Black and Indigineous individuals experiencing homelessness far exceeds the proportion of people that are living in extreme poverty. 

Statistics to highlight these discrepancies: 

  • African Americans comprise 13% of the general population, yet account for 26% of the overall population living in poverty, and even more apparent, they account for 40% of the homeless population. 
  • In 2016, people who identify as American Indian/Alaskan Native represented 4.2% of the unsheltered homeless population nationally. For the overall U.S. population, they only represented about 1%.

These disparities are, the result of centuries of discrimination through racist housing policies that include forced displacement and redlining. Racial housing discrimination became part of official policies created by the US government in 1933 in order to increase and segregate the amount of available housing. Author of The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein says the housing programs that started under the New Deal were equivalent to a “state ­sponsored system of segregation.” He also explains that these discriminatory housing policies were “primarily designed to provide housing to white, middle­ class, [and] lower ­middle ­class families.” BIPOC communities were excluded from these new suburban communities, and subsequently pushed into urban housing projects. 

Redlining specifically furthered these segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages in and near predominantly African­ American neighborhoods. In hindsight, it is clear how these housing policies have had a devastating and lasting effect on American society. The segregation of our communities today has resulted in stagnant inequality because it is significantly more difficult to become upwardly mobile when living in segregated neighborhoods that have systematically been denied access to economic and social opportunities. 

To end homelessness and dismantle racism on a systems level, it begins by investing in equity based approaches that are inclusive and culturally specific. 

Because we know that structural racism not only exacerbates but causes homelessness for communities of color,  we cannot have authentic solutions to ending homelessness without dismantling structural racism. 

Here at JOIN, we understand the cause of mass homelessness to be racist origins in our social infrastructure. For this reason, we advocate for policies that dismantle housing discrimination and design our programs to be centered in racial equity. This means working toward becoming an anti-racist organization through policy advocacy, program design, partnering and sharing resources with culturally specific providers, and applying a racial equity lens to all our programs to provide culturally relevant services. JOIN’s services are driven by and tailored to each household we work with, which highlights how essential it is for us to acknowledge and consider households’ culture, community, and lived experience into our service delivery.

Learn more about equity work underway in Multnomah County through the Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities (SPARC) Project as part of A Home for Everyone. More information is found here.