Last fall, the National Coalition for the Homeless and a team of graduate students from George Washington University set out to learn “the extent to which homeless individuals in Washington, D.C. have experienced discrimination as a result of their housing status.”
They conducted a survey. And now we have a glimpse of the results. Within limits (of which more below), they indicate that many homeless people in the District have felt discriminated against — or at least, had experiences which persuaded them that others have.
The researchers wound up with usable surveys of 142 individuals — 110 men and 32 women. This is, of course, a very small fraction of the population of homeless adults in the District who have no family members with them, as last year’s one-night count indicates.
I don’t have the data to figure out whether the gender breakout — or the race/ethnicity breakouts — are reasonably representative. I rather doubt they exist. The gender breakout, however, does nearly mirror the shelter bed allocations in this year’s Winter Plan, and these are based on past demand.
The survey respondents were asked a number of questions about their experiences with private businesses, law enforcement, medical services and social services.
As the NCH website suggests, they were also asked questions about other groups, e.g., employers, landlords. But these didn’t yield statistically significant results. So they’re not in the report.
In fact, the report quantifies responses to only one question: “How often, in your experiences, did the following groups [private businesses, etc.] discriminate against people without housing?”
One could answer “often” to this on the basis of second-hand information, e.g., having been told that homeless people weren’t welcome in some McDonald’s restaurant.
Yet the survey itself included questions about direct personal experiences, especially with law enforcement. Unfortunately, as Michael Stoops at NCH confirmed, the sample was too small for statistically significant results on such important particulars.
That said, we seem to have considerable consensus that private businesses and law enforcement officers at least sometimes treat homeless people unfairly — 70.4% of affirmative responses for the former and 66.6% for the latter.*
Nearly 50% perceived discrimination by medical services and 43.7% by social services. For the former, the report includes two very disturbing anecdotal fragments.
A woman said she was refused care by local health care providers because “the staff thought she was faking it to get inside.” Another respondent said, “When I got stabbed, the paramedic said there was nothing wrong with me …. [H]e said I just wanted to get out of the rain.”
I’m frankly disappointed in this report because I’m sure as can be that people who are identifiably homeless are treated differently from thee and me — and in ways that are consequentially harmful.
The fact, sad as it is, that passersby make them feel “disconnected from the world,” as one respondent said, isn’t as harmful as getting rousted by the cops — or worse. And it’s far less harmful than being denied medical care.
These aren’t just perceptions of differential treatment. And I wish the report had provided more of them, even anecdotally, because, to me, they’re compelling evidence of a serious social problem — and one that’s reflected in a host of policy choices.
The report is nevertheless one of the first of its kind. And it’s only one portion of a campaign that NCH is waging — a complement of sorts to its annual reports on hate crimes against homeless people.
Here in the District, as elsewhere, NCH seeks to have a bill of rights for homeless people enacted. Three states and Puerto Rico already have such bills.
Alternatively, Stoops suggested, the District could amend its Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on housing status.
Either action would provide a basis for legal claims against public or private entities that deny people medical care, social services and/or opportunities to work, rent, sit in a fast food restaurant, a library or a public park because they have no home of their own.
Needless to say, we wouldn’t see a flood of legal claims, though you can bet the Chamber of Commerce will claim otherwise, as it has in California.
The potential for legal action might make some difference, however. In the best of cases, it would prompt some apparently needed education in our public agencies and private-sector enterprises.
And we, as a community, would have officially recognized “the humanity of people who are homeless,” as the latest NCH hate crimes report says we must. That would prompt us to act when we perceive inhumane treatment — as it should, even without new legislation.
Surely we’d respond if our grandmother was told she was “just faking it” when she went to a healthcare clinic.
* The report collapses responses ranging from “rarely” to “very often” into a single “yes”.