ADVOCACY MEMO – Race and Homelessness

“Wealth is a safety net that keeps a life from being derailed by temporary setbacks and the loss of income.”

Nationwide, approximately 40 percent of people experiencing homelessness are Black, despite being 13 percent of the overall population. In San Francisco, Black people make up 5 to 6 percent of the overall population but are close to 40 percent of the population of those experiencing homelessness. This is reflected across the state as well. San Francisco has one of the highest rates of black homelessness.

This is not a random coincidence; rather, it is rooted in the structural inequalities sewn into the fabric of our nation’s systems that harm Black people and other people of color. Institutional and structural racism manifest in our education, criminal justice, housing, employment, healthcare, income, and wealth systems compound upon each other to make Black people far more vulnerable to poverty and homelessness. In combination with the high cost of housing and living generally in California, structural inequities result in the massive disparities we see across our city, state, and nation.

What does systemic racism look like?

A home in a black-majority part of the Bay Area is worth about $164,000 less than an equivalent home — same size, same quality of school system, same access to parks and other neighborhood amenities — in a neighborhood with very few black people.

Nationwide, the average white household has 10 times as much as wealth as the average black household:

  • Average median net worth for white family = $171,000
  • Average median net worth for black family = $17,150

All of this matters because wealth confers benefits that go beyond those that come with family income. Wealth is a safety net that keeps a life from being derailed by temporary setbacks and the loss of income. This safety net allows people to take career risks knowing that they have a buffer when success is not immediately achieved. Family wealth allows people (especially young adults who have recently entered the labor force) to access housing in safe neighborhoods with good schools, thereby enhancing the prospects of their own children. Wealth affords people opportunities to be entrepreneurs and inventors. And the income from wealth is taxed at much lower rates than income from work, which means that wealth begets more wealth.”

Nearly 50% of black Californians lived in households that were cost burdened in 2018, meaning they paid over 30% of their income on rent/housing; nearly a quarter paid more than 50% of their income towards housing costs, meaning they were severely cost burdened.

Across the US, Black Americans are far more likely to face and undergo the trauma of eviction than are White Americans. It is estimated that black households are 2 to 3 times as likely as white households to face eviction, even when controlling for education and socioeconomic status.

In 2017 Black people accounted for 13 percent of the overall population yet 33 percent of the sentenced prison population. White people accounted for 64% of adults in the U.S. but 30% of prisoners, while Hispanics represented 16% of the adult population yet accounted for 23% of inmates.

In 2017, 28.5% of California’s male prisoners were African American—African American males are only 5.6% of the state’s adult male residents. The imprisonment rate for African American men is 4,236 per 100,000 people—ten times the imprisonment rate for white men, which is 422 per 100,000.

  • For Latino men, the imprisonment rate is 1,016 per 100,000; for men of other races it is 314.
  • African American women are also over-represented. Of the state’s 5,849 female prisoners, 25.9% are African American—yet only 5.7% of the state’s adult female residents are.
  • African American women are imprisoned at a rate of 171 per 100,000—more than five times the imprisonment rate of white women, which is 30 per 100,000.

The prison system, already a facet of racial inequality, then exacerbates homelessness – in the US, formerly incarcerated individuals are almost 10 times as likely to experience homelessness than the general public.

  • After released, many folks cannot access housing benefits, SNAP, and other social supports. It is legal to discriminate against people with previous experience with the carceral system when it comes to work, education, and housing.
  • Moreover, prison is a punitive response that disrupts one’s community and causes loss of income and wealth.
  • Many cities across California enforce “quality of life” ordinances that criminalize sleeping outside, panhandling, etc. These can not only deepen trauma, but also add expenses to people in poverty who lack such funds. Criminalization of homelessness serves to deepen a traumatic cycle between homelessness and the carceral system.
  • People with mental health or substance use disorders often lack supportive services and access to health care – the largest mental health care institution in California is the Los Angeles County Jail.

So, we cannot discuss racial inequality, justice, and violence in America without looking at homelessness; and we cannot discuss homelessness without looking at the overlapping and multi-system factors that create homelessness itself and the racial inequities therein.


New Website for the Office of Racial Equity

The Human Rights Commission’s Office of Racial Equity has launched its new website! This website will be a tremendous resource for understanding the City’s policies, departments, and outcomes through the lens of anti-racism. Check out the HRC’s Office of Racial Equity new website here.

Major Update on Proposition C

On June 30, 2020, the California First District Court of Appeal, in a 3-0 unanimous decision, affirmed the right of the people to pass Proposition C, a tax imposed on businesses earning more than $50 million, with a simple majority. The voter-generated initiative passed in 2018 with 61% of the vote has already collected over $300 million for homeless, housing, and mental health services.

As of now, the money is held by the City Controller. While he retains the power and discretion to release the money, it is likely that he will wait until the final conclusion of the case. It may be appealed to the California Supreme Court within 40 days. That said, this decision, and the previous court victories for Prop C, puts the measure in a strong position to ultimately pass. While not finalized, this was an exciting victory in the essential effort to create a dedicated source of funding for housing and homelessness. Read more here.

Catching Up on the News

2020 marks the fifth year of the San Francisco Chronicle’s SF Homeless Project. As the impacts and disparities of Covid-19 continue to devastate our country and our state, this coverage has never been more important. It is estimated that Covid-19 and the ensuing economic crisis could lead to a 40-45% increase in homelessness nationwide, and a 20% increase in California alone. That is nearly 250,000 people nationwide.
Read the full coverage here.

More stories in the news: