A familiar mantra among shelters, nonprofits, and other organizations dedicated to addressing homelessness is that anyone can become homeless.
While it is true that homelessness affects all kinds of people, the belief that it is a universal issue often leads policymakers, community leaders, and workers in the field to overlook the reality that some people are more likely to become homeless than others, Center for Social Innovation chief equity and impact officer Regina Cannon says.
Dispelling the myth that homelessness is colorblind was the central focus of the 2019 HomeAid Northern Virginia Housing Forum, which took place on May 9 at the Reston Community Center and brought together more than 130 individuals representing 49 organizations from across the region.
Held annually by HomeAid NOVA, a nonprofit housing provider, the housing forum gives organizations that provide services or programs related to homelessness the opportunity to share ideas and interact across different jurisdictions.
The forum typically features speeches from local experts, but for this year, the HomeAid team decided to try a new approach and bring in an organization with national reach to discuss race and homelessness, titling the event “Leading with Racial Equity: Data and Beyond.”
Cannon and Center for Social Innovation senior advisor Jeff Olivet turned out to be the perfect keynote speakers for this particular subject.
“This is their expertise,” HomeAid NOVA executive director and CEO Kristyn Burr said.
Initially founded in 2006 as a homelessness resource center, the Center for Social Innovation provides training, technical assistance, and consulting to agencies and communities looking to address public health problems, such as homelessness, trauma, and mental health and substance use disorders.
During their address to the HomeAid Housing Forum, Cannon and Olivet shared data from a Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities study that the Center for Social Innovation conducted with The Bassuck Center on Homeless and Vulnerable Children and Youth in March 2018.
According to the SPARC report, which analyzed more than 110,000 client records from six localities around the country, black and Native Americans experience rates of homelessness disproportionate to their presence within the general U.S. population, and that overrepresentation persists even when controlling for poverty rates.
64.7 percent of the people experiencing homelessness in SPARC communities were black, and 6.9 percent of them were Hispanic, meaning that people of color composed 78.3 percent of the homeless population compared to white people making up 28 percent.
Data suggests that Fairfax County is not immune to these racial disparities.
More than half of the people experiencing homelessness in the county are black, even though that demographic only represents about 10 percent of the county’s total population, according to Fairfax County Office to Prevent and End Homelessness deputy director Thomas Barnett.
A point-in-time count conducted on Jan. 23 found 1,034 people experiencing homelessness in Fairfax County, 610 or 59 percent of them identified as black or African American.
The homeless population on that day was 30 percent white, 11 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian, 4 percent multi-racial, and 1 percent American Indian or Alaskan Native.
“A lot of our efforts are focused on trying to discover why [it is disproportionate],” Barnett said. “We understand there’s a history of employment and housing discrimination, and so we’re trying to figure out, within the homeless system, what kind of things can we do to make sure they achieve the best outcomes?”
Those racial inequities can be seen in the Washington, D.C., region as a whole, where 74 percent of homeless single adults are black or African American compared to 20 percent white, 7 percent Hispanic, 4 percent multi-racial, 1 percent Asian, 1 percent American Indian or Alaska native, and 0.4 percent Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, according to an annual point-in-time analysis released on May 8 by the Metropolitan Council of Governments.
According to Olivet, part of what makes addressing these disparities challenging is that, until recently, data on homelessness was rarely broken down based on race, so there was limited quantitative evidence that a problem existed.
COG, for instance, did not start including questions about race and ethnicity in its annual survey of the regional homeless population until 2014, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development first included race and ethnicity on its annual summary reports in 2015.
Homelessness also still tends to be treated as a personal or moral failing when, in reality, it is a systemic issue resulting from centuries of often discriminatory policymaking, from the 1830 Indian Removal Act, which forced Native Americans off their own land, to the federal redlining efforts that codified neighborhood segregation in the 1900s.
Racial discrimination in housing then ties race into economic inequality, since home ownership and housing equity are among the most effective tools for accumulating wealth and passing it down from one generation to the next, according to Cannon and Olivet.
Disparities in other facets of society, such as the criminal justice system, education, and healthcare, further contribute to the disproportionate presence of black people in particular in homeless populations.
“Moving toward racial equity is a real process,” Cannon said. “We didn’t get to those disproportionalities overnight, and we won’t get to racial equity overnight.”
The good news, Cannon says, is that if these issues are created by policy, then they can be fixed with policy as well.
In addition to advocating for housing legislation at the local, state, and federal levels that aims to address systematic discrimination, Cannon and Olivet urged attendees of the HomeAid NOVA Housing Forum to examine their own workplaces to ensure that they have staffs and boards with a diversity of backgrounds.
People with lived experiences of homelessness can provide an especially valuable perspective, Cannon says.
“It’s important for organizations like nonprofits across the area to not just look at the client base, but also look at the internal structure of their organization to make sure that it represents the clients that we’re serving,” Burr said.