Affordable Housing, Community Development, Homelessness, Supportive Housing

Homelessness: A Symptom of Broken Social Structures


According to Jeffrey Olivet, CEO of the Center for Social Innovation, homelessness is not just about housing, services, and poverty. It’s also about injustice, oppression, and racism. At his workshop, “Homelessness, Racism, and Social Injustice” at the recent National Health Care for the Homeless Conference in Washington, D.C., Olivet took us on a journey from civil war work camps to the present day where some school districts are reversing hard-won integration policies based on the misguided premise that we have reached a time of colorblindness in which these policies are no longer necessary.

Racism is not over. Olivet said that 60% of people in homeless shelters are minorities; 40% are African American. African Americans are three times more likely to utilize shelters than the rest of the population, and they are 47%of the population of homeless children. This is a tremendous disparity, considering that African American children represent only 15% of U.S kids. Strikingly, African Americans represent 12.8% of the total population, 27% of the poverty population, and 41% of the homeless population (56% among families).

Olivet affirms that homelessness is a symptom of structural racism. It stems from poverty, increased demand for and decline in affordable housing stock, housing and employment discrimination, residential segregation, and lack of access to mental health and substance services. Those of us who work on this issue know this to be true, but it’s not part of our everyday focus in efforts to end homelessness. We focus, instead, on practical strategies and implementable solutions.

We discuss but don’t directly target the straight line from prison to homelessness, the link between single-headed female households and homelessness, or the relationship between concentrations of poverty in center cities to the rise of homelessness among black people. Inequities developed over 100 years of policymaking are now inscribed geographically.

We must find a way to address these racially coded policies, or we cannot completely solve homelessness. As John Lozier, president of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council asserted on the conference’s first morning - “Homelessness is the result of public policy, and it must be solved through public policy.”

*Alicia Woodsby is the Deputy Executive Director of the Partnership for Strong Communities.

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