Black Homelessness a Sign of Where History Still Needs to Go

February 14, 2017

Well, we’re still In the midst of commotions created by our President and his choices for some top-level officials.

We’re also in the midst of Black History Month — a time when we’re supposed to pay more attention than we usually do to important people and events that brought blacks in America and thus America itself to where we are now.

A worthwhile endeavor. We may even discover the up-and-coming Frederick Douglass.

I’m taking a different tack, though one that’s far from unique. Where does the black stream of American history have yet to go? That’s a much larger question than I’m prepared — or indeed, suitable — to answer.

So I’ll d return to an issue that’s still drawing people to my blog — why homeless people don’t work or do, but are homeless anyway.

My last post on the issue ended with a bare mention of race discrimination. I left it hanging because it’s one of those complex cause-effect factors.

I’ll try to disentangle some of them here, conscious that I’m over-simplifying what merits a book, but also that those factors speak to the larger question I led off with.

Black Over-Represented Among Homeless

Homelessness itself is as good a starting point as any, since it’s unusually common for blacks. They represent 39.1% of all homeless people, according to the latest breakout from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That’s less than 10% smaller than the percent of homeless whites — and nearly three times the percent of blacks in the U.S. population as a whole.

High Black Poverty Rates

Nobody needs a post to tell them that people of all races are homeless because they can’t afford housing. That itself is over-simple. Some can afford housing, with or without a subsidy, but still may still have no safe, stable place to live.

Criminal records pose a barrier to both privately-owned and public housing. More on that below. We need here to recall that they’re not the only records that can keep people out of housing they can afford.

Merely having been poor at some time in the past can keep people out — even housing a federal voucher would subsidize — because landlords commonly check credit histories. Not out of idle curiosity, of course.

But lack of ready money accounts for a lot. And the black poverty rate, like the homeless rate is disproportionately high — and has been ever since the Census Bureau started breaking out its survey results by race.

Which takes us to work issues. Obviously, since people who have good-paying jobs can pay for housing, though not necessarily where they want it. And, as we all know, the readiest path to those jobs, is a good education.

Labor Market Disadvantages Linked to Persistent Segregation

Blacks’ disadvantages in the labor market date back to slavery, when some freed by former masters or self-liberated worked for pay, but far more, still-enslaved were denied any education.

The Jim Crow laws that replaced slavery didn’t prohibit educating blacks, but generally allowed it only in schools that were, as the Supreme Court eventually found, “separate but unequal,” inherently so, though they were also often unequal in other ways.

Federal laws notwithstanding, blacks remain segregated in many communities due in part to local housing policies, e.g., zoning, discriminatory housing practices, and vestiges of past discrimination by the federal government.

Disadvantages to living in neighborhoods — or whole communities — where policies have concentrated blacks are themselves a cause-effect tangle, reflected in the high black poverty rate.

A major, though not the only reason for the rate is lack of marketable skills — literacy, including now computer proficiency and, beyond that, a formal education credential, which employers use as a threshold sign of those skills.

Schools in high-poverty neighborhoods generally have less money than those in well-off neighborhoods and they need more to ensure that the disadvantages of poverty don’t hold children back.

This issue is far from new and hasn’t garnered much by way of consensus on solutions. I may return to it, especially now that desegregation and equal educational opportunities have again become front-page controversies.

For now, the end result will have to suffice. For too many black youth, it’s is lack of a high-school diploma or the equivalent — the minimal qualification for most jobs — and virtually all paying enough to make housing affordable.

Growing up and going to school in a high-poverty neighborhood may not altogether account for this. We’ve also got some persuasive evidence that black students don’t get a fair shake.

For example, they’re far more likely than their white peers to incur punishments that not only deter them from learning, but can tempt them into criminal behaviors — or at the very least, gain them criminal records. And so we loop back ….

Disproportionate Criminal Justice

It’s common knowledge by now that our criminal justice system sweeps in a far higher percent of blacks than whites. Police practices of various sorts put them at higher risk, according to reliable local investigations..

We’ve reasons to question whether they’re treated equally thereafter — how they’re charged, if at all, whether they’re actually sent to jail or prison, whether they’re sent back for failing to comply with parole requirements they can’t meet, including payments of court fees and fines.

Now, as I said, public housing authorities and owners of federally-subsidized housing must bar people who’ve been convicted of certain drug offenses, but some go considerably further.

Private-sector landlords generally may pick and choose tenants, though with a recently-announced constraint that may not remain a federal fair housing enforcement policy.

The weeding out helps account for the high black homeless rate. Whether sheltered or living in some place “not meant for human habitation,” homeless people are likely to be on the streets most of each day.

That in itself can lead to a criminal record, even for such harmless behaviors as resting on a park bench or sleeping under a bridge because there’s no room in a shelter—or the shelter’s too unsafe.

And so we’ve got a loop-closer, though hardly one that accounts for either the high black homeless rate or the closely-related poverty rate.

Like the other factors I’ve cited, these are more or less systemic. We mustn’t, however, levy the whole blame on systems. Every one of the factors I’ve cited affords evidence of out-and-out discrimination.

Another piece of the puzzle I’ll have to leave for another day. But even this much means, of course, that we’ve every reason to recognize the many millions who overcame — and did so much to make many of our worst policies past history.

But it also reminds us that we’ve got a long way to go — and right now, urgent needs to preserve the progress we’ve made.

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