Study: Homelessness higher in specific demographics

By Eileen Weber
July 3rd, 2023
Charley Willison, PhD
Charley Willison, PhD, MPH, MA, is an assistant professor in the department of public and ecosystem health at Cornell University.

Blacks, Indigenous are most affected

More than 3.5 million Americans experience the public health crisis of homelessness. And demographics play a role in the likelihood of it occurring.

A recent study published in the “Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities” shows Blacks and Indigenous people—American Indian or Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders—were twice as likely to be homeless than non-Hispanic Whites. I

The Black and Indigenous population had homelessness impact their health in various ways– from infectious diseases to adverse behavioral health issues and significantly higher all-cause mortality. The study covered the years from 2007 to 2017.

Estimates of sheltered homeless are only available up to 2017.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), a nonprofit, non-partisan organization committed to preventing and ending homelessness in the United States, concurs with the results of the study.

According to its data, African Americans represent 13 percent of the general population but account for 37 percent of people experiencing homelessness and more than 49 percent of homeless families with children.

The organization breaks it down into clear criteria that foster racial disparity in homelessness: poverty, redlining and segregated neighborhoods, incarceration, and poor access to quality health care.

In an email exchange, Chandra Crawford, PhD, NAEH’s chief equity officer, pointed out the many problems perpetuating homelessness in people of color.

“Many racial and ethnic minority groups are overrepresented in the homelessness system and generally experience homelessness at higher rates than White people,” she said.

“Government sponsored and sanctioned discriminatory policies and practices in the forms of Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, redlining, racially restrictive covenants and exclusionary zoning laws, to name a few, have all had profoundly racialized consequences, including the disproportionality of people of color in homelessness. The overrepresentation of marginalized, minority groups in homelessness is a result of intentional and racist institutional policies, practices, and procedures.”

The study’s lead author is Charley Willison, PhD, MPH, MA, an assistant professor in the department of public and ecosystem health at Cornell University. She discussed redlining, which is a refusal of services like mortgages, loans, or other financial services to racial, ethnic, or low-income groups because they live in certain areas deemed “hazardous” to investment.

She said before redlining, there was structural racism in urban planning. Cities and towns were strategically zoned for restriction to services for black and brown communities. It was about retaining political and economic power for white communities. Since then, those zoning laws have stayed in place.

Willison noted there are typically two types of homelessness: temporary and chronic. Temporary homelessness accounts for approximately 70 to 80 percent of that population. It is usually short term and results from job loss or low wages to afford housing.

For 20 to 30 percent, homelessness is a chronic problem. Often, there is a physical ailment or disability coupled with a mental health issue like substance abuse or severe mental illness. Adding to that are the strains of food insecurity and access to medication.

For the focus of the study, researchers collected annual, national counts of sheltered homelessness by racial and ethnic demographic groups over the 11 years including 2007 through 2017 from the publicly available HMIS (Homeless Management Information System) data files from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Using data from the Census and HMIS, the research team compared annual trends of homelessness by percentage of the total population across demographic groups and categorized them based on total rates of sheltered homelessness, sheltered homelessness of individuals, and sheltered homelessness in families.

And yet, they found this data limiting, pointing out that “limited or no data” makes it challenging or impossible to: identify who is at risk of homelessness and the causes of it; who is experiencing it; link individuals to necessary resources including shelter and housing; and identify outcomes post-interventions.

Their concerns centered around “point in time” or PIT counts which only account for homelessness in a single night. The researchers noted the HMIS count is effectively an undercount. It doesn’t include people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, which accounts for about one-third of all individuals experiencing homelessness in the country.

“Unsheltered homelessness,” the study revealed, “disproportionately affects marginalized groups and may thus further exacerbate disparities.” While the study covered only the years leading up to 2017, they surmised that rates of unsheltered homelessness most likely increased during the pandemic.

“The biggest surprise was how the disparity remained persistent,” explained Willison. “In that decade’s time frame, the Great Recession occurred. So in 2008, the rates of homelessness increased across demographics. We expected they’d go down over time. But that did not happen for Blacks and Indigenous people. We saw the spike, but there was no reversal.”

Interestingly, the Latino population decreased by a third during this time. When Willison was asked why, she gave her best guess.

“We don’t know,” she said. “One aspect is immigrant status. There are a lot of people who don’t want to go to shelters because of a lack of documentation. Also, there’s more likelihood of doubling up with multiple families or multiple generations living together.”

The study indicated that there are viable resources working to alleviate many of the problems associated with homelessness. In particular, Housing First programs provide rental assistance for varied lengths of time depending on the need. The concept is that when a homeless person is given a safe place to stay without limitations, this (practice) can reduce harmful behaviors and improve overall health.

When the root of homelessness (not having shelter) is removed, then people can focus on other aspects that improve their lives.

For homeless people, there’s also greater exposure to infectious diseases, Willison said.
While the study covers a pre-pandemic time period, it was easy to surmise the effects COVID had on homelessness.

With such an easily transmittable disease, shelters closed. This situation allowed for unsheltered encampments to grow in major cities across the country. CNN reported in May about a homeless camp of approximately 900 people in downtown Phoenix.

Neighbors sued the city for the “public nuisance” and the camp will be disbursed. Where do the people go from here? One camp resident put it this way: “It’s hard because nobody wants to see the problem. Nobody wants to acknowledge the problem. They just want it to go away.”

Because of the pandemic and the ensuing job loss that occurred, more people became at risk for homelessness. And what would have been ordinarily a temporary home loss became a more long-term problem because of inflation. The longer people experience homelessness, the harder it is to get out of it.

Willison said she’s working on a new study looking at how solutions can be implemented for homelessness and what the barriers to those solutions may be.

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