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The old stereotype of a homeless person in America was a solitary middle-aged white male alcoholic. Although this may have described a majority of homeless people before the 1980s, the current homeless population in the United States is younger, includes a large number of families composed mostly of women and their children, is much poorer, and is much more ethnically diverse. African-Americans are overrepresented in all subgroups of homeless people, including adults, families, and adolescents.
Those who identify themselves as African-Americans represent 12 percent of the U.S. population and 50 percent of the U.S. homeless population. In some U.S. cities, African-Americans make up an even larger proportion of the homeless population. For example, in Buffalo, New York, African-Americans constitute 68 percent of homeless adults and in Detroit, Michigan, African-Americans make up 85 percent of the homeless population. African-Americans appear to be most heavily overrepresented among homeless adults and families.
Explaining The Overrepresentation
The surge of homelessness that began in the 1980s has been attributed to an increase in the number of poor people, a lack of affordable housing, and the loss of well-paying unskilled jobs. Additional historic and structural factors include racism, discrimination, and a lack of access to higher education.
Research suggests that African-Americans are more likely to become homeless as a result of external factors like chronic and pervasive poverty than European-Americans, who are more likely to experience homelessness due to internal factors like mental illness, family dysfunction, and substance abuse.
Homelessness can be seen as the by-product of a rise in the number of people experiencing poverty and an increase in the disparity between the rich and the poor. In fact, many scholars view homelessness simply as an extreme form of poverty. Research suggests that the current homeless population is suffering from more extreme poverty than the homeless population before the 1980s, whose income was three times higher than the income of the current homeless. Some studies have found that the problems of homeless people differ only slightly from the problems of the very poor. For example, some have found that rates of mental illness are much higher in both homeless and matched housed poor individuals (similar to the homeless in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, and/or neighborhood income). Because of the overrepresentation of African-Americans among poor persons in the United States, poverty can be viewed as an important cause of the overrepresentation of African-Americans among the homeless. Roughly 25 percent of African-Americans in the United States live in poverty. In addition, whereas 20 percent of U.S. children live below the poverty line, 50 percent of ethnic minority children live below the poverty line.
Factors that might be driving the increase in the number of poor persons, as well as the increase in the number of poor African-Americans, include welfare reform, gentrification, and a lack of well-paying unskilled jobs. In recent years, “welfare reform” has resulted in a reduction in the services provided to those who are poor. African-Americans appear to be faring worse than other ethnic groups on many factors directly related to poverty, including education, unemployment rates, and the availability of transferable job skills.
Change in Economic Structure
The change in the economic structure of America worsened the already grave situation of America’s poor. The move from factory jobs to service-oriented jobs has decreased the availability of employment for workers who do not have transferable job skills (skills acquired during life activities that are transferable and applicable to other occupations) and who may be less educated. Historically, African-Americans have disproportionately relied on blue-collar manufacturing positions. This can be seen in the auto industry in Detroit, where many African-Americans have traditionally been employed. In addition, entry-level jobs are moving away from the inner city, where many African-Americans reside, and into the mostly European-American suburbs, making it difficult for African-Americans to obtain and maintain employment.
Homelessness is directly related to the availability of low-rent housing. Whereas the need for affordable housing has increased, the availability of low-rent housing and government-subsidized housing has decreased. This lack of affordable housing, especially in some of the major U.S. cities where there are high concentrations of African-Americans, has also been suggested as an explanation for the over-representation of African-Americans in the homeless population. The process of gentrification, in which low-income neighborhoods are reclaimed by developers, has also resulted in higher housing costs in many urban areas. Urban renewal programs have occurred in cities where African-Americans are highly concentrated, including Chicago, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, California.
Discrimination and Racism
Several factors directly related to the minority status of African-Americans in the United States also contribute to homelessness. Discrimination in the workplace makes it more difficult to obtain well-paying jobs and often leads to the acceptance of lower wages for the same work. For example, African-Americans with some college education have a higher rate of unemployment than European-Americans with less than a high school diploma. In addition, there is a clear difference in the types of jobs African-Americans are likely to hold. African-Americans are overrepresented in low-paying service jobs and underrepresented in higher-paying professional and managerial positions.
Discrimination in housing practices makes it difficult for African-Americans to find affordable housing. Many landlords are more inclined to rent to European-Americans than to African-Americans, and sellers and mortgage companies are less likely to provide loans or sell homes to African-Americans. These discriminatory practices, especially common in neighborhoods where European-Americans predominate, can result from blatant racism but can also reflect more subtle forms of prejudice. These factors contribute to African-Americans accepting less satisfactory terms when choosing to rent or buy a home and make them more likely to live in segregated inner-city neighborhoods where economic growth is declining and where there are often poor-quality school districts and more violence. Discrimination in the labor and housing markets puts African-Americans in a perilous situation. Such discrimination requires them to possess superior academic credentials and experience in order to achieve parity with European-Americans.
Differences Between African-American And European-American Homeless Populations
Some researchers have suggested that the factors that contribute to poverty and homelessness are different for African-Americans than for European-Americans, but few studies have attempted to document the differences. However, understanding the different paths to homelessness could help guide policy initiatives.
Some studies have found distinct differences between homeless individuals who are African-American and those who are European-American. In a 1994 study comparing European-American and non-European-American (mostly African-American) homeless adults, European-American participants were older and more likely to be married than their African-American counterparts (North and Smith, 1994). Homeless women were more likely to be members of an ethnic minority, especially African-American. This was especially so for homeless women with children. European-Americans were more likely to be divorced or widowed. In addition, African-American women were more likely to be mothers and more likely to have children under fifteen years old in their physical custody than European-American women.
African-American and European-American homeless people have different employment and financial experiences, too. Homeless African-American men are more likely to be employed than European-American homeless men, although they report having lower incomes from their employment.
European-American men are more likely to have quit their jobs and more likely to list psychiatric problems as having contributed to their unemployment. In addition, it appears that the time gap between an individual’s last steady job and the onset of a spell of homelessness is longer for African-Americans than for European-Americans. This suggests that African-Americans are able to avoid homelessness for a longer time on little or no income.
African-American homeless women depend more on welfare benefits than European-American homeless women do. African-American homeless women often cite poverty as the reason for their homelessness, while European-American homeless women are more likely to cite a traumatic event such as domestic violence or mental illness as the cause. A study of homeless African-American women with families found that more than half of these women were receiving public assistance and almost a fifth were employed. This research suggests that although African-American homeless women may be receiving monetary help through employment or public assistance, this monetary help is not sufficient to provide shelter for these women and their children.
History Of Homelessness
There appears to be a difference in the duration and frequency of incidence of homelessness between European-Americans and African-Americans.
European-Americans who are homeless report more episodes of homelessness than do African-Americans. European-American homeless women also report more time being homeless and more time living on the streets than do African-American homeless women. Homelessness for African-Americans seems to be episodic, while for European-Americans, homelessness may represent more complex personal and social problems.
African-American homeless adults are more likely than their European-American counterparts to report having stayed most of the past year with their families. A European-American homeless individual is more likely to report having been physically abused as a child, and a European-American woman is more likely to report having been sexually abused. In a study of homeless adolescents, European-American adolescents reported coming from families that were more dysfunctional than those of their African-American peers. European-American adolescents were also more likely to have experienced a family characterized by verbal and physical aggression, conflict, and a lack of cohesion. It appears that the African-American homeless may have more contact with their families than the European-American homeless do and may have come from more functional families.
Psychological Difficulties and Treatment
Research also suggests that ethnic differences exist in mental health and substance abuse problems among homeless individuals. European-American homeless individuals are more likely to report a history of psychological difficulties and to report that these difficulties contributed to their homelessness. Looking at a lifetime prevalence of substance abuse disorders, one study found that European-American homeless men report higher rates of both alcohol and drug abuse problems than their African-American counterparts.
Studies have also found that European-American homeless women exhibit higher rates of psychological disorders than African-American homeless women. Additionally, African-American women report less use of both inpatient and outpatient care; unlike European-American women, they also report that they wanted but were unable to obtain psychological care.
Public policy and economic changes that affect the poor and those living in the inner city disproportionately affect African-Americans because they are more likely to be poor and more likely to live in the inner city. The causes of homelessness are different for African-Americans than for European-Americans. Family dysfunction, physical and sexual abuse, and mental illness appear to be the most important causes of European-American homelessness. Factors related to poverty and discrimination appear to explain the overrepresentation of African-Americans among the homeless. An awareness of these differences can help guide public policy initiatives that aim to reduce the disparity between African-American and European-American rates of homelessness.
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