For Too Many, Homelessness Begins with Racism

For Too Many, Homelessness Begins with Racism

San Francisco Chronicle
October 11, 2016
By Jeff Kositsky and Marc Dones

A 2011 study found African Americans are more likely than whites to become homeless. Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle A 2011 study found African Americans are more likely than whites to become homeless.

 
Homelessness — and how best to end it — has been a topic of conversation over the past several years at the state, federal and community levels around the country. However, what we do not say often enough or loudly enough is that racism and homelessness are inextricably linked. Yes, racism. It’s time to speak the truth. It’s time to call it what it is.

 
More than 40 percent of people using shelter in the United States each year are African American, nearly three times their portion of the general population. A 2011 study by George Carter from the Census Bureau found that even when controlling for poverty, African Americans are dramatically more likely than whites to become homeless. Additionally, there is some evidence that they stay homeless longer. The only other racial group that comes close to these rates of homelessness is Native Americans.

 

The situation in San Francisco is similar; African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are overrepresented among those who experience homelessness. According to the 2015 San Francisco Homeless Point-in-Time Count, African Americans make up only 7 percent of the general population, but are approximately 36 percent of people who are homeless.

 
There is a deep and abiding problem within the reality of American homelessness that points unequivocally to racial injustice. For adults, the systemic exclusion of people of color from the housing market through redlining tactics meant they were largely excluded from home ownership until roughly 1970 — after the passage and partial implementation of the Fair Housing Act.

 

As we discuss the possibility of ending homelessness in San Francisco and in the United States, we must understand that without a simultaneous conversation about race, we would be disingenuous at best and self-sabotaging at worst. We cannot hope to make progress on a problem that is the result of racial inequity without engaging with how racism shapes our present.

 

If homelessness reflects the continued failure of our social systems to serve people equally in housing, education, health care and criminal justice, then the necessary question has to be: How can we, as a society, transform these systems? We believe that this question is vital and cannot be answered in a vacuum. We must come together and agree to do the difficult and necessary work of understanding our nation’s history and identifying what we must do to move forward.

 

San Francisco has nationally recognized homeless programs such as Direct Access to Housing, Project Homeless Connect, rapid re-housing, and Navigation Centers that have their roots here. Since 2004, more than 23,000 people have ended their homelessness with assistance from the city and service-provider partners. The San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and many partners are working hard to address the immediate and growing problem of homelessness. However, we need to look at issues such as housing policies, education and racial injustice if we are to permanently end homelessness.

 

Jeff Kositsky is the director of the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. Marc Dones is an associate for equity initiatives and diversity at the Center for Social Innovation in Needham, Mass.

 

To learn more
The San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, in partnership with the Center for Social Innovation, Hamilton Families, Project Homeless Connect, and HandUp.org., are hosting a series of events and trainings. The first community conversation is:

  • When: 6 p.m., Monday, Oct. 17 (Doors open at 5:30 p.m.)
  • Where: Herbst Theater, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
  • For details: http://bit.ly/2e77det