This is the reality, which most people in Seattle already know: People of color are overrepresented in our homeless population, both nationally and locally. Black folks, especially, are impacted; Black families are seven times more likely to become homeless than white families. And while African Americans account for just about 13 percent of the general population, they represent 40 percent of the homeless population.
The reality that fewer people know, though, is just how long this has been happening and how much anti-Blackness is a feature of the housing and homelessness system.
The roots of this disparity reach back to Reconstruction and well before. After the Civil War, vagrancy laws were enacted to limit the activity and movement of Black folks, which helped outline a lot more racist laws moving forward. Citations and incarceration have long been used to keep Black folks poor. The Great Depression hit African-American families harder than any other group; they were not only put out of work but were also subjected to state-sanctioned hate crimes, including beatings and lynching. Meanwhile, the white “hobos” of the 1930s, who were unstably housed out of necessity or by choice, were glorified in their own time and still are.
Fast forward to the Reagan administration, when funding for HUD and other social services were cut and cash welfare was all but obliterated. While this did impact some white folks, it was African-American families living in cities who were, again, hit hardest. Similarly, Reagan’s unwillingness to address the HIV/AIDS crisis led to new biases in health care and a pandemic that has devastated the Black community.
Presently, the disparity among the homeless population is related to a number of issues, including structural racism that hinders the lifetime earnings of Black individuals and a legacy of legislation that has made homeownership nearly impossible. Add in the impacts of mass incarceration — lower earnings, unstable family units, and the costs associated with detention and the legal system — and it would be surprising if somehow Black folks weren’t overrepresented in our shelters.
Homeless service providers are already overwhelmed with the demands of the job — which certainly hasn’t been made any easier by COVID-19. But they’re still working to center racial equity in their work. Unfortunately, it can’t be just up to them to address this massive imbalance; by the time a person is homeless, they’ve already been failed by the system too many times. Racial disparity in homelessness doesn’t start when someone becomes homeless; it started 200 years ago and has been perpetuated ever since.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer. Her work has appeared in GOOD Magazine, Bust, the Atlantic, the Nation and others.
Read more of the June 3-9, 2020 issue.