Related: "America's Minorities: From Hope to Homeless"
Radu, Carmen. (2012).
By Carmen Radu
Student Pulse, 2012, Vol. 4 No. 12
This study asks the question of why minorities are so overrepresented among the homeless, with a focus on the United States and Europe in a comparative perspective. I combine Charles Tilly’s theoretical model on how to challenge durable inequality with the human rights approach, and argue that only a human rights approach that addresses the full spectrum of rights can challenge durable inequality and overcome the problem of minority overrepresentation among the homeless, by challenging the structures of social exclusion. This research adds to the growing literature that focuses specifically on minority pathways into homelessness, and challenges traditional literature on homelessness, which does not address the racialization of the issue and minority overrepresentation. For the United States, I used an ethnographic approach and conducted interviews with the homeless, and for Europe, I largely used Council of Europe reports to assess the situation of minorities in the specific countries.
Readers: Jump ahead to the following sections
Methodology (Page 5)
Results (Pages 6-11)
Summary of Hypotheses & Findings (Table 9, Page 11)
Conclusions (Page 12)
In the policy and academic debate on homelessness, four main explanations for homelessness emerge. First, an early yet still lingering view is that homelessness is caused by individual-level factors, whereby individuals become homeless because of something wrong with them on a psychiatric or psychosocial level. The second view is that homelessness is caused and sustained by structural-level factors that are economic in nature, poverty driven by neoliberalism. These two views explain risk of homelessness but do not sufficiently explain the overrepresentation of minorities among the homeless in particular.
The third explanation looks at immigration law as a source of marginalization and explains why undocumented peoples are overrepresented among the homeless. However, this explanation does not account for why non-immigrants are overrepresented among people who are homeless, as in the case of black British citizens, Roma EU citizens, blacks in the U.S., or French citizens of African descent in France. The fourth and best explanation is the relational sociological approach developed by Charles Tilly. Tilly argues that exploitation rests on the construction of unequal categories. Categorical inequality is then sustained by three other mechanisms: emulation, adaptation, and opportunity hoarding (Tilly 1999, 1-41).
I argue that minorities are overrepresented among the homeless because the exploitative relationship established during slavery and colonialism depended on the construction of categorical boundaries. These boundaries have become durable and continue to limit or deny certain groups access to resources such as equal jobs, wages, and housing. When structural inequality and homelessness increase, these minority groups suffer the worst. The human rights approach to the issue of homelessness is similar to that of Tilly in that it treats civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights as inextricably linked. The human rights approach can challenge durable inequality by challenging exploitative relationships, improving overall quality of life for disadvantaged groups.
There is a long and entrenched history of viewing homelessness as caused by individual faults. In the late 19th century, the philosophy of Social Darwinism predominated among English scholars who impacted English laws on homelessness. This view held that the lack of resources should be interpreted as laziness. In discussing Capitalism and the protestant work ethic, Max Weber considered laziness a sin. Adam Smith believed welfare laws interfered with the natural ways of the market. Thomas Malthus believed that aid to such “inferior” members of society interfered with natural population control and natural selection (Axelson et al 1988, 463-465). Individual-level explanations resurfaced when homeless numbers rose in the 1970s and early 1980s; the discourse then focused on personal fault and misfortune (Hooper 1991, 19-23). Researchers sought to understand the rationality of the decision to live on the streets (Hooper 1991, 19-23).
Bessant et al. critique that these older discourses of “deviance” and “social pathology” continue today via “risk talk.” They argue that the focus on risk reduction, risk management, and risk indicators reflects the predominant framework whereby homelessness, for example, is constituted by people who are pushed over the edge into homelessness due to individual-level factors such as drugs, alcohol, or mental illness (Bessant et al. 2003, 4). For example, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration on its website states that while structural factors like the unequal distribution of income and lack of affordable housing cause homelessness, vulnerabilities such as addictions, mental illness, domestic violence, medical conditions, and lack of education or job skills determine who is at higher risk; there is no explanation discussed as to why people of color are more vulnerable (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2012).
Early accounts placed the percentage of homeless that suffer from mental illness in the United States at 90, as found in studies conducted by Bassuk, Rubin & Lauriat (Rosenheck et al. 1988, 16). Some scholars such as Koegel, Burnam & Baumohl also identified the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill as the major cause for the surge in homelessness in the United States (Rosenheck et al. 1988, 16). Deinstitutionalization occurred in the 1950s and 1960s; the number of mentally ill in hospitals was approximately 600,000 in 1955, dropping to approximately 125,000 in 1982 (Hope & Young 1986, 167). There was a belief that the use of antipsychotic drugs and community involvement would better serve the mentally ill. Scholars argued that many actually ended up homeless because community planning and resources were never allocated to these needs (Hope & Young 1986, 168-169).
Duffield challenged the view that most homeless suffer from mental illness due to the deinstitutionalization phenomenon on the basis that the surge in homelessness did not occur until the 1980s (Duffield 2001, 204). Glasser also argued that actual research has been unable to prove whether mental illness precedes homelessness, as in some cases, “acting crazy” may be an adaptation to life on the streets, which is dehumanizing (Glasser 1994, 30-31). Furthermore, the most recent data suggests that only 26% of homeless people have mental illnesses (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2011) discounting this trait as a predominant causal factor in homelessness.
Some scholars such as Bahr, Caplow, and Wiseman argued that alcoholism and substance abuse have a causal role (Rosenheck et al. 1988, 16). Along similar lines, Brent stated that alcohol abuse was three times higher than in the general U.S. population, and argued that a complex interaction forms a relationship between alcohol abuse and economic dislocation (Brent 1990, 123-124). Brent cites Vaillant, who argued that chronic use of alcohol causes such severe personality disorders that participation in the middle class is inhibited; he argued that severe alcoholism causes low social class (Brent 1990, 127).
Duffield challenged this view as well, arguing that homelessness cannot be explained by addiction disorders alone, and that rather it was the increasing competition for scarce low income housing along with tough conditions for receiving housing in the U.S. that cut off those with disabilities and disorders from receiving housing (Duffield 2001, 204). The most recent data shows that those with substance abuse issues comprise 35% of the homeless population (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2011), making this factor significant but not necessarily causal. Therefore, individual-level explanations have a strong history among social scientists, but others have come to challenge this view. For the purposes of this research, this framework does not explain why minorities are overrepresented among the homeless.
Biologists have not been able to define race in a way that mutually excludes members of a supposed race from others. Rather, differences are merely aesthetic or phenotypical; societies have given meaning to these differences and have hierarchically arranged them through social, political, economic, and ideological processes (Calavita 2005, 144-145). Racial construction takes place based on “amateur biology” whereby differences in skin color and other characteristics serve as markers or visible cues to intrinsic differences (Calavita 2005, 145-146). Racism is the systematic subordination and domination by one group over another, justified by the latter’s perceived inferiority due to different phenotypical characteristics (Calavita 2005, 152).
Unless one adheres to racist beliefs that some races have diminished capabilities or work ethic, the individual-level framework is not helpful, and a more structural approach is needed. The main criticism of the individual-level explanations came from scholars arguing that the literature did not take into consideration structural socioeconomic factors that were occurring in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Other scholars primarily point to economic structural factors, linking homelessness to persistent urban poverty caused by Capitalism and Neoliberal economic policies. These analyses discount individualistic explanations and argue that American political science is unfortunately embedded in a culture in which poverty reflects personal failings, personal choice, and personal characteristics (Wright 2000, 31). Wright cites that a literature search on homelessness revealed that 2/3 of articles appeared in journals devoted to psychiatry, psychology, and medicine.
Most of the socio-structural explanations originated in the late 1980s to explain the sudden increases in the U.S. homeless population, and continued in the early 2000s. For example, Wright argued that the increase in homelessness worldwide came about due to the shift from the welfare state to the Neoliberal state, which generated extreme social inequalities and limited affordable housing. The context is the transition to a post-industrial, service-based Capitalist economy, and the main causal factors are: the integration of Transnational Corporations, deregulation, privatization, and financial austerity, all of which accelerated accumulation of capital at the expense of working class families (Wright 2000, 30-32). This led to declining incomes and declines in welfare.
Duffield directly links the 1980s surge in homelessness to Reagan’s policies of decreased social spending and the assault on organized labor (Duffield 2001, 197-198). Susser added that the homeless are part of the “underclass” who have been victimized by the global Capitalist economy, which has made their low skilled labor unnecessary and irrelevant to the service-based economy (Susser, 1996). This socioeconomic structural transition that these scholars have pointed to is also called the post-Fordist social transition hypothesis, occurring in the 1970s. Mingione states that post-Fordism has increased risk of poverty for the common worker. In addition to the factors cited above, other characteristics are the disappearance of stable wages, erosion of the protective role of the nuclear family, declines in marriage and birth rates, population aging, and decreased role of kinship networks due to rising individualism (Mingione 1996, 15-20).
The post-Fordism literature therefore considers homelessness within the context of increased risk of poverty for lower skilled workers. They do not deny the role of individual vulnerability such as mental illness or addiction problems, but these are not the causal factors pushing some into homelessness, the economy is. These works do recognize that minorities are more vulnerable to poverty or homelessness, but they do not clearly explain why, and the causal factor and driver remains post-Fordism and Capitalist restructuring.
Wacquant argued that the spatial and industrial restructuring of American Capitalism triggered “hyperghettoization” and the social and economic marginalization of inner city Blacks. Mainly, at a time when African Americans were migrating en masse to the rustbelt central cities, manufacturing jobs were fleeing abroad, in the sunbelt states, and the suburbs (Wacquant et al. 1989, 1011). Wacquant argued that the restructuring of the urban economy transformed the ghetto from being a common resource and a humanized place with which blacks felt a positive identification in the 1960s, to an instrument of virtual imprisonment for the urban sub-proletariat of color (Wacquant 1996, 125). Wacquant primarily views the homeless as part of the marginalized group of people which include expandable industrial workers and others whose marginal status is caused by the “de-proletarianization” and class fragmentation resulting from Capitalist restructuring (Wacquant 1996, 128). The post-Fordism literature therefore does not particularly address why minorities are overrepresented among the homeless. For Wacquant, race and discrimination only play a role as part of the intermixing with class and capitalist restructuring, producing advanced marginality.
Another group of scholars have looked at marginality and homelessness of undocumented peoples, attributing their situation to racism and discrimination embedded in immigration laws and public attitudes. In writing about inequality and racism towards immigrants in Europe, Calavita argues that a neo-racism has developed, which is justified by cultural difference rather than aesthetic difference. Culture is associated with national or ethnic background, and is viewed as static. Immigrants in Italy and Spain are seen as incompatible invading cultures that can weaken the host country culture and attack the superior European identity. Despite integration laws that promote multiculturalism, immigration laws ensure marginalization because they create exclusion in access to equal rights and resources, condemning these groups to poverty. In turn, the low status of immigrants is blamed on cultural inability to integrate (Calavita 2005, 149-153).
Public attitudes towards immigrants parallel exclusionary immigration laws. Simon and Lynch conducted a study comparing public attitudes towards immigrants in the United States, France, Germany, the UK, Canada, and Australia. They found that no country’s public has favorable opinions about the respective cohorts of immigrants, and that respondents wanted their country to accept fewer immigrants and place more restrictions on immigrants of color (Simon and Lynch 1999, 458-464). In a most recent study released in 2011, the European Network Against Racism has found that racially discriminatory practices in Europe are widespread, institutionalized, and practiced at all levels across Europe. They also found data on racism to be unreliable and undocumented in official data. Key people being discriminated against are: Africans, black Europeans, Muslims, Roma, Jews, and migrants. More specifically, they found discrimination in access to housing, the recruitment process for employment, segregation and discrimination by teachers in the educational field, prejudice by staff and doctors in the medical field, difficulties in accessing certain bars and other entertainment, promotion of racism in the media, us vs. them rhetoric, and negative representation of minorities in the media (Gauci 2011, 4-5). These types of attitudes and discrimination in the housing and employment markets push these vulnerable groups into homelessness.
Calavita and Edgar et al. have written directly about immigrant vulnerability to homelessness in Europe. In 2004, Edgar et al. conducted one of few comparative projects on this issue. They discovered the same puzzling pattern whereby ethnicity alone is an important factor in determining access to housing across Europe (Edgar et al. 2004, 103). Similarly to Calavita, Edgar et al. argue that a “hierarchy of vulnerability” has been created by European migration policy, such that there are eight categories of migrants with differential access in seven domains: right of residence, right to employment, right of access to welfare, right of political participation, right to claim naturalization, to travel within the EU, and rights of dependent family members (Edgar et al. 2004, 28).
Edgar et al. found specific instances of discrimination by private landlords who refused to sell or rent to foreigners, and systematically higher rent for foreigners. They argue that
Similarly to Edgar et al., Calavita found that illegal status contributes to lack of housing because it is illegal to rent to the undocumented, forcing the undocumented into black market housing where prices are much higher. Being unable to pay due to low wages, many become homeless. Calavita also finds that documented immigrants live in many of the same places with the undocumented because of discrimination. She finds spatial segregation of immigrant communities, and premiums added to immigrant housing prices; Calavita argues that in turn, the housing problem becomes a marker of difference, reproducing marginality (Calavita 2005, 110-117).
The immigration laws and marginalization approach does not explain or address why non-immigrant minorities or descendants of immigrants are overrepresented among the homeless. Anti-immigrant laws alone are not sufficient in explaining the phenomenon, especially when it comes to the United States. A more comprehensive approach is one based on Tilly’s durable inequality, which explains why discrimination and racism occurs against some groups and not others, and why direct or indirect discrimination has the structural impact that it does, in this case: minority homelessness.
Tilly looks at why categories, in particular racial categories, still determine how our society is organized, whereby we see different sets of categories of people (external categories) divided by race, gender, religion, or citizenship status, associated with different levels of access to resources (internal categories) within hierarchical organizations, which he defines broadly as corporate kin groups, households, religious sects, local communities, and any other well-bounded cluster of social relations (Tilly 1999, 10). Although he does not specifically address homelessness, homelessness amounts to a lack of resources; his approach provides scholars with a set of causal factors to research when explaining various inequalities.
The association between internal and external categories is sustained by causal mechanisms of which exploitation is central; people who control access to value-producing resources and who benefit by excluding others are exploiters; when such exclusion takes place using external categorical distinctions to solve organizational problems, durable inequality persists. The main usefulness to an organization is that if internal categories are matched to external ones, lower rank resistance is less likely. These external categories, in particular race, were socially constructed for the purposes of extreme exploitation during colonialism and slavery, and now outlive their times due to the fact that they are costly to change and facilitate exploitation; because social life has organized around them, they appear natural (Tilly 1999, 74-115).
Tilly argues that in understanding unequal arrangements, prejudice and attitudes are less important than are convenience, transaction costs, and contingent opportunities (Tilly 1999, 15-37). In regards to the unequal likelihood of ending up homeless among minorities, Tilly would point to structural factors such as constraints, unintended consequences, and indirect effects (Tilly 1999, 37). He attacks individual-level analyses for conceptualizing inequality in terms of individuals receiving differential rewards based on attributes such as human capital, ambition, educational credentials, gender, race, and personal connections, and for accounting for discrimination only when individual attributes are factored out (Tilly 1999, 22-31). Tilly argues that such analyses derive collective outcomes such as racial differences in poverty based on individual attributes, but fail to specify how this link is made (Tilly 1999, 23).
Some scholars writing about homelessness have found similar dynamics as described by Tilly. Marcuse and Rosenheck et al. make a link between economic restructuring and the reinforcement of categorical boundaries. Marcuse argued that while victims of severe poverty and homelessness are caused by the post-Fordist transition, the identity of the victims depends on how government addresses the problem. Marcuse recognizes that the new homelessness of the 1980s does not reflect changes in the business cycle as in previous times, and that there is an overrepresentation of minorities (Marcuse 1996, 192). Marcuse attributes this to an intentional repressive/exclusionary approach to the victims of economic change in the United States, pushing them into ghettoes. He states that the post-Fordist city is highly segregated into well off and poor areas, where the wealthy decide who lives where (Marcuse 1996, 197). Ghettoization and spatial exclusion has been undertaken because it is less costly to sustain than the welfare state response. The less like the majority of the population victims are, the less likely the government is to respond with welfare. Marcuse argues that if black victims of economic change can be outcast as a group based on a history of such stigmatization, repression and segregation becomes a less costly, politically acceptable alternative (Marcuse 1996, 209). This argument is similar to Tilly’s in regards to why exploitative relationships persist.
In their 1996 study on American homelessness, Rosenheck et al. show that poverty alone does not explain homelessness among blacks. Poor blacks living in cities were twice as likely to become homeless as poor whites in the same city. Also, homeless blacks were less likely to suffer from mental illness, and had stronger employment histories than whites (Rosenheck et al. 1998, 15). Rosenheck et al. argue that it is the historical legacy of discrimination that explains overrepresentation of minorities among the homeless in the U.S. While the income gap between whites and blacks may have narrowed, the wealth gap did not; blacks did not have accumulated assets because they were less likely to own homes post World War II due to discrimination. Moreover, discrimination in housing markets has kept communities segregated, and such racial and socioeconomic segregation makes a community more vulnerable to economic downturns (Rosenheck et al 1998, 14).
For example, as recent as 2007, some studies were already predicting the adverse impacts the subprime mortgage crisis would have on minorities in the United States. A study conducted by N.Y.U’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy found that majority black and Hispanic neighborhoods in New York city were more likely to receive subprime mortgages, which are defined as loans carrying an interest rate more than 3% above the federal interest rate, and which carry higher fees, penalties, and risk of foreclosure (Fernandez, 2007). These loans are made to riskier borrowers, however, this study along with others showed that subprime loans were made even when minority income levels and credit ratings were comparable to those of whites (Fernandez, 2007). Some analysts and economists at the time claimed that mortgage discrimination can’t be pinpointed directly due to variables not represented in the data such as lack of banking services in some minority communities and racial and ethnic differences in wealth (Fernandez, 2007).
Risk of foreclosure is essentially risk of homelessness, and mortgage discrimination increased risk of foreclosure for minorities. Notably, this story contains the dynamics of durable inequality, because subprime lenders found it convenient to operate along categorical lines, exploiting the financial vulnerability of minorities; whether this vulnerability was real or perceived, the decision was made along categorical boundaries. These recent developments also reinforce arguments made by the Rosenheck et al. study.
The Rosenheck et al. study cited Tilly and noted that although minorities have been overrepresented among the homeless, social perception has contributed to inattention to this aspect, as if it were expected and natural, leading to a lack of studies directly addressing minority pathways into homelessness (Rosenheck et al. 1998, 13). Rosenheck et al. argue that institutional interventions to address homelessness among blacks require special considerations of discriminatory institutional and structural factors (Rosenheck et al. 1998, 15-16).
Particularly in regards to comparisons between the U.S. and Europe, Marybeth Shinn finds four forms of social exclusion linked to homelessness, based on: income, wealth, housing, and incarceration (in the United States). Her approach is also similar to Tilly’s. She argues that it is social policy informed by cultural practice in the U.S. and Europe that shapes levels of inequality of particular groups, by shaping access to income, wealth, jobs, and housing (Shinn, 2010). She cites a study conducted by Alesina and Glasser, who argued that the generosity of welfare programs is tied to ethnic fractionalization in a society: majorities are unwilling to pay for redistributive policies that favor minorities. In the U.S. welfare policies are less generous in states with higher percentage of blacks, and 2/3 of the gap in social spending between the U.S. and Europe is due to greater racial heterogeneity in the U.S. (Shinn, 2010).
These analyses raise questions about what kinds of policies are needed to address the overrepresentation of minorities among the homeless. Tilly’s argument of making exploitation costly and inconvenient to the dominant groups is helpful here. Tilly argued that durable inequality can be challenged when the benefits from exploitation and opportunity hoarding decline and/or the costs of such exploitation increase ie. the cost of controlling a subordinated population increases (Tilly 1999, 225). According to Tilly, these changes are structural, and members of the subordinated groups are actually empowered (Tilly 1999, 227). Within the context of homelessness, there has been an increasing trend to view people who are homeless as rights claimers. Furthermore, human rights groups have also come to understand how social exclusion, human rights violations and homelessness are interconnected. They argue that violations of civil and political rights such as discrimination affect the enjoyment of socioeconomic rights such as housing.
The human rights framework is complementary to Tilly’s durable inequality thesis, and human rights can alter the structures that cause and sustain durable inequality. I combine Tilly’s argument that costs and benefits need to be changed in order to change unequal set ups, and I argue that a human rights approach that links civil and political rights to socioeconomic rights is most helpful because it has the potential to achieve this by making discrimination on all levels costly for organizations and societal entities through law, and this can spill over to improving overall quality of life for minorities and reduce risk to homelessness.
As others cited above have shown, homelessness among minorities is tied to social exclusion in other aspects of their quality of life such as employment, political participation, and interaction with other groups in society. From an international human rights standpoint, nondiscrimination is essentially a civil/political right and housing is a social/economic right. These two sets of rights are interrelated, hence certain violations such as discrimination affect the enjoyment of other rights such as housing; this relationship explains the overrepresentation of people of color among the homeless.
One example is the fact that a large segment of homeless black men have been in the criminal justice system, as highlighted by Rosenheck et al (1998, 20). There is a body of scholars whose research has found discrimination and racial bias in the U.S. criminal justice system, which lead to an overrepresentation of African Americans in jails (Michelle Alexander, David Jacobs & Richard Kleban, Nicola Lacey, Peter Marcuse). Pettit and Western investigated the lifetime risks of imprisonment for black and white men at different levels of education, assuming that imprisonment, college graduation, and military service are passages into adulthood in one’s lifecourse, affecting overall life trajectory and quality of life, such as gaining stable employment. Pettit and Western found that by 1999, imprisonment had become a common life event for non-college educated black men, more frequent than military service or college education (Pettit and Western 2004, 164). They found that 1/3 of non-college educated black men had been to prison, while few non-college educated white men did. Whites in their early 30s were twice as likely to earn a BA (Pettit and Western 2004, 164).
The interaction with the criminal justice system has been found to be a marginalizing factor. Devah Pager conducted a study producing direct evidence that ex offenders were only half to a third as likely as non-offenders to be considered by employers (Pager 2003, 961). Furthermore, she found that blacks with a criminal record are less than half as likely to be considered by employers as whites with a record, and that blacks without a record are less likely to be considered as whites with a record (Pager 2003, 961). These studies and conclusions show that there is a strong link between civil rights and economic and social rights, which can explain why minorities are overrepresented among the homeless.
In order to understand the human rights framework, it is important to mention the origins of human rights. Modern human rights can be traced to the 18th century Enlightenment. John Locke wrote about natural rights and natural law; Immanuel Kant wrote about “universalisable duties” people owe to each other and constraints that limit the actions that can be taken against individuals (Fitzpatrick and Watts 2010, 108). Modern human rights are more comprehensive and did not come about until the post World War II era. Political realities led to the separation of civil/political rights from economic/social rights. Western countries only recognized civil and political rights. The Soviet bloc only recognized economic and social rights (Donnelly 2003, 33). This schism led to the creation of two separate documents, and the option for governments to pick and chose enforcement of human rights. Nondiscrimination is found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 26:
All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status (ICCPR, 1966).
The right to housing is found in article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights:
The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent (ICESCR, 1966).
In addition, a plethora of international documents encompass the right to housing and nondiscrimination:
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
UN General Comment No.4 on the Right to Adequate Housing
UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers
European Social Charter and the Collective Complaints Protocol
European Convention on Human Rights
2000 EU Race Directive
EU Charter of Fundamental Rights
EU Social Protection and Social Inclusion Strategy
Therefore, I draw from Marcuse, Rosenheck et al, Tilly, Pager, and Pettit and Western, and combine durable inequality with the human rights framework. The human rights framework approaches minority homelessness within the context of social exclusion, and denials of civil and political rights affecting the enjoyment of other economic and social rights. Tilly’s durable inequality framework provides the deeper understanding of why such violations occur for some and not others. The human rights framework complements Tilly’s contribution by providing the mechanisms that change the benefits associated with exploitative set ups Tilly discusses in seeking to challenge durable inequality.
I argue that individual factors interact with structural factors such as poverty to push already marginalized people into homelessness. While poverty, neoliberal policies, and individual-level factors may increase vulnerability to homelessness, minorities are overrepresented in all cases because of durable inequality and social exclusion which lead to these factors impacting some groups more severely than others. The following section discusses the methodology I used to conduct the research.
I selected the following countries for the comparative analysis: United States, Finland, France, Sweden, Italy, and the United Kingdom. In the United States, homelessness data is collected at the national level through the annual Point in Time Surveys, conducted by local communities and submitted to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2012). Estimates of the number of people experiencing homelessness in the United States range from 1.6-3.5 million people (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2009). The variance in numbers stems from the elusiveness of the problem and the difficulties in counting the homeless. The Point in Time surveys conducted one night each year include people who are able to be reached on the streets, those in emergency shelters, those in transitional housing, and permanent supportive housing (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2011). The United States defines a homeless person as one that:
Lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence; and... has a primary night time residency that is: (A) a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations... (B) An institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized, or (C) a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2009).
The United States categorizes a person as chronically homeless if he or she is an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continually homeless for a year or more or who has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past 3 years (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2011, 3).
In Europe, homelessness remains a national and/or local level competence, although there is a growing call for EU action. Scholars have called for an EU Directive which would bind member states to address homelessness (Fernandez, 2008). The European Federation of National Organizations Working With the Homeless (FEANTSA) is at the forefront of European homelessness studies; in 2011, FEANTSA issued a letter calling on the EU Commission to directly address homelessness and housing rights in line with a European Parliament declaration calling for: housing-led approaches, links to structural funds, and a framework for monitoring and reporting on the development of national and regional strategies (Feantsa.org, 2011). There are an estimated 3 million people homeless throughout Europe (Fernandez, 2008). Many of the same hurdles in counting the homeless found in the United States are also common throughout Europe.
Although a European definition of homelessness does not exist, FEANTSA and the European Observatory on Homelessness have developed a typology, by synthesizing national reports. Homelessness in Europe is defined as the lack of either a legal, physical, or social domain ie. the lack of a roof, a legal title, or a private and safe personal space for social relations (Edgar 2009, 16). As in the United States, European countries provide outreach services, emergency shelters, and transitional housing. In addition, hostels serve as a refuge, and an attempt is made to count this population. The category of chronic homelessness is also found in the European setting (Edgar, 17-22).
In Europe, national data collection strategies on homelessness are shaped and can be identified according to groups of welfare regimes. There are wide disparities in capacity or national will to count the homeless population. Nordic model countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden) conduct yearly national surveys and possess clear national strategies, monitoring, and enforcement responsibilities (Edgar 2009, 23). Liberal Atlantic countries (UK and Ireland) vary between Ireland, which has a national strategy, and the UK, which has regional variations of data collection methods (Edgar 2009, 24). Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and Netherlands comprise the Continental model, which makes use of the census and surveys, with variations among countries that do not have national competence regarding homelessness (Germany, Austria) and countries that do (France). In the Mediterranean model countries, Spain addresses homelessness on a federal level, Greece does not have a national strategy, while Italy’s national data collection is minimal (Edgar 2009, 25-27). Finally, the new Eastern European member states have unreliable data on homelessness, and services for the homeless are in the beginning stages (Edgar 2009, 27-37).
Tables 1 and 2 below display the composition of minority groups as a share of the homeless populations and as a share of the total population of each country being studied. As can be seen, in all countries, minorities are over-represented. The groups of people constituting minorities vary by country, but in general they are people of color. Note that the lack of overrepresentation of Latinos among the homeless in the United States has been described as the Latino Paradox and has been attributed to strong traditions of family support (Rosenheck et al 1998, 20).
Table 1. Composition of minority groups among the homeless as compared to their share of the total population in the United States and selected European countries.
% of Homeless Population
% of Total Population
United States (2009-2010)
African (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia)
Italy 2000 (nationwide)
Italy 2008 (Milan)
90% of slum pop.
31% of street and shelter pop.
Sources: US Department of Housing and Urban Development, The 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, June 2011; Finish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, National Strategy Report on Social Protection and Social Inclusion, 2008; Statistics Finland, ; FEANTSA, Homeless Immigrants in Finland, 2002; French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), “Specific Aspects of Poverty: Homeless People,” 2005 ; INSEE, 2004-2005 Annual Census Surveys, ; Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare, “Homelessness in Sweden in 2011,” 2011; Department of State, Background Note: Sweden, < http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2880.htm>; Tosi, Antonio, “Demographics and Trends of the Homeless Population in Italy: Point-in-Time Studies,” , 2004; Italian National Institute for Statistics (ISTAT), Foreign Resident Population 2002 and 2008, ; Braga, Michela, and Lucia Corno, “Being Homeless: Evidence from Italy,” Working Paper n.2009-17, September 2009.
Table 2. Composition of minority groups among the homeless as compared to their share of the total population: United Kingdom.
% of Homeless Population
% of Total Population (
Other White (Eastern European)
Sources: The Department for Communities and Local Government,
The hypotheses I developed and tested reflect the different theories described in detail in the literature review as to the causes of homelessness: individual-level explanations that place a strong causal role on factors such as mental illness, drug and alcohol addictions, domestic violence, medical conditions, and lack of education or job skills; structural level factors which emphasize poverty, the erosion of the nuclear family, rising individualism, and lack of affordable housing driven by neoliberal policies; immigration laws that marginalize migrants by excluding them from equal rights and resources; the relational sociological approach which looks at categorical inequality and the legacy of slavery and colonialism which created persistent unequal categories based on gender, race, and immigration status and which explains minority homelessness on the basis of social exclusion, and indirect or direct discrimination; the human rights framework which interprets the categorical inequality framework slightly different by drawing attention to the link between lack of civil and political rights such as discrimination or disenfranchisement and lack of economic and social rights such as housing.
Due to the fact that this study does not include interviews with people that are homeless in Europe, in the comparative context, I hypothesized the following:
1a. Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for welfare and homelessness assistance in all countries under study.
1b. Direct discrimination in the housing market plays a much stronger role in Europe than in the United States.
I tested hypotheses 1a and 1b by analyzing eligibility requirements for immigrants to receive welfare and homeless assistance in the United States and the European countries under study. Furthermore, I researched examples of housing discrimination in Europe. I also attended a Migration Policy Institute panel composed of integration ministers from various European countries addressing immigrant integration in Europe, where I was able to directly ask questions. Finally, I contacted a total of 13 European NGOs and government agencies working on homelessness in the countries under study:
United Kingdom: Shelter; Joseph Rowntree Foundation; Crisis.
Sweden: National Board of Health and Welfare; The Foundation for Human Rights; Ersta Diakonia.
Finland: The Helsinki Deaconess Institute; Finnish Blue Ribbon; No Fixed Abode; Salvation Army Finland.
France: Impact Entrepreneurs; FNARS.
Italy: Fondazione Integra/Azione; Antonio Tosi-National Representative to the European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless.
All representatives of organizations were asked the following questions:
What is the average education level and skills of people that are homeless in your country?
Is there a common element that seems to be a driver of homelessness in your country?
What are the types of benefits available to people that are homeless? Are there differences in access to resources for homeless people that are undocumented?
In your experience, do you notice a difference in the process of homelessness in your country among different ethnic/racial groups or immigration status?
Data I have researched for your country indicates that there is an overrepresentation of immigrants among the homeless. While keeping in mind that numbers are not a perfect indicator, what is your professional opinion as to why immigrants would be overrepresented?
In the United States, the study was largely ethnographic. The ethnographic method is rooted in anthropology and sociology and is based on fieldwork, mainly participant observation. Ethnographic studies can range from complete immersion of the researcher into the studied community, to strict separation between participant and observer (Genzuk, 2003). Ethnographic research taps both top-down views, such as those of policy makers, and bottom-up views, such as those of the people being serviced (Genzuk, 2003), in this case, people that are homeless.
Therefore, I conducted interviews2 with a total of 44 men and women in Washington, DC, Alexandria, and Arlington homeless shelters, taking place between May and July 2012. I solely interviewed single individuals, because this study does not address family homelessness, which would require special attention and is a topic of further research.
All of the shelters in D.C. that I gained access to were operated by Catholic Charities. I have conducted interviews at the following shelters: 801 East Men’s Shelter (Washington, DC); Adam’s Place Men’s Shelter (Washington, DC); New York Avenue Men’s Shelter (Washington, DC); Nativity Women’s Shelter (Washington, DC); Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter (Washington, DC); Sacred Heart Day Program (Washington, DC); Christ House Transitional Program (Alexandria, VA); Volunteers of America Residential Program Center (Arlington, VA).
The interviews were guided by discussions of life experiences, to better trace and understand the processes that led to people’s homelessness. Durable inequality can be detected by comparing the relational constraints different groups have. I looked for indicators discussed by Marcuse, Rosenheck et al. Tilly, Pager, and Pettit and Western, and I interviewed both whites and minorities to see if the processes that led to white homelessness are similar or different that those of blacks. More specifically, these were the hypotheses tested for the U.S. part of the study:
2. All people that are homeless possess vulnerabilities interfering with their ability to gain stable living such as: mental illness, drug and alcohol addictions, physical disabilities, and domestic violence histories most notably in women (individual level 3. People that are homeless could not maintain housing because of lack of affordable housing and lack of family support, coupled with low job skills and education irrelevant to the economy, hindering access to employment (structural level) 4. There is a categorically defined difference in the process of homelessness: markers of categorical inequality, social exclusion, and direct or indirect discrimination are evident in the experience of homelessness of African Americans and immigrants (categorical inequality and the human rights framework):
Parents of African Americans did not own a home as opposed to those of Caucasians
A significant number of African Americans are homeless as a direct result of foreclosures
African Americans and immigrants experienced direct discrimination and negative attitudes from employers, public officials, and/or service providers
African American males likely to have been incarcerated
Immigrants are less likely to suffer from addictions, mental illnesses or have criminal backgrounds and more likely to be undocumented and lack access to benefits, health care, and employment
Caucasians are more likely to have mental illnesses as opposed to African Americans or Immigrants
The following topics were discussed in the interviews: age, education level, citizenship status; mental health; childhood and home ownership of parents; life and events immediately prior to experiencing homelessness; access to health insurance and government benefits before and after experiencing homelessness; interactions with public officials, employers, and service providers before and after experiencing homelessness; employment and wage history; interactions with the criminal justice system; drug and/or alcohol addiction issues.
The professionals interviewed in the United States consisted of one professor in the School of Social Work at Howard University, three social workers specializing in homeless populations, and one homeless shelter program director. The professionals were asked questions along the lines of those asked of European professionals:
In your experience working with people that are homeless, what are some of the problems you regularly come across and must address?
In your casework, do you notice a common element that seems to be a driver of homelessness?
What do you think about national statistics that show an overrepresentation of people of color among people that are homeless in the United States? Why do you think this is the case?
Are there differences in access to resources and benefits for undocumented peoples in the D.C. area?
In your casework, have you noticed a difference in the process of homelessness among different racial/ethnic groups?
The results of the study as described thus far are discussed for each region below.
This section overviews the situation in the selected European countries of Finland, Sweden, the UK, France, and Italy with regards to: social rights for the undocumented and other migrants; discrimination in the employment and housing markets; professional opinions as to the drivers and causes of homelessness and minority overrepresentation among the homeless, where responses were received from the European organizations contacted in each country.
According to NGO professionals from the Helsinki Deaconess Institute (HDI) in Finland, the main drivers of homelessness there are substance abuse problems in the case of short-term homelessness, and lack of affordable housing in the case of long term homelessness. However, it is not only a lack of affordable housing; there are simply not enough places to rent, which drive up costs. Other individual level vulnerabilities mentioned were mental illnesses and physical disabilities (HDI representative, July 10, 2012), email message to author). Within the context of other structural level factors as being drivers of homelessness, most of the clients served by the Institute have only completed nine years of primary education. More specifically, the table below displays the reported education level of the clients served:
Table 3. Education levels of clients at the Helsinki Deaconess Institute
Source: Helsinki Deaconess Institute Representative, July 10, 2012, email message to author.
Even though some have trade school or a degree, none of the HDI clients are employed. The employment market is even more restricted to immigrants, because they lack suitable education and language skills (HDI representative, July 10, 2012, email message to author). As seen earlier in table 1, immigrants from Africa, Iran, Iraq, and Eastern European Roma make up 20% of the homeless population in Finland, while they make up only 2.5% of the total Finnish population. This overrepresentation seems to be driven by discrimination in the housing and employment markets:
Immigrants in Finland are less likely to have individual level vulnerabilities such as substance abuse, and are more likely to maintain a government subsidized apartment when awarded one (HDI representative, July 10, 2012, email message to author). Only documented immigrants can receive housing assistance. Undocumented immigrants can only stay overnight in overnight emergency service centers. The situation for Roma is noted to be the worst, despite their EU citizenship; they are least likely to access housing. The Helsinki Deaconess Institute operates a medical center where undocumented people can receive medical services they would otherwise not be eligible for (HDI representative, July 10, 2012, email message to author).
Based on these inputs, homelessness in Finland can be explained by individual as well as structural level factors such as low education levels and skills. Overrepresentation of immigrants among the homeless is explained by social exclusion and direct discrimination in the housing and employment markets. While the undocumented have no rights and access to benefits, documented immigrants also face obstacles due to their foreign origin and language barrier. This is especially a problem if landlords, for example, prefer to rent to Finns.
The situation in Sweden is similar. Based on input from the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare, the manifestation of homelessness in Sweden is similar to that in Finland as reported by HDI. The National Board of Health and Welfare is a government agency that falls under the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs with a task to collect information on various social issues, among other tasks. According to a representative from the Board, substance abuse is a factor in approximately 40% of people that are homeless (Annika Remaeus, July 3, 2012, email message to author). As in Finland, the housing market is a main structural obstacle, as landlords are very strict in refusing to rent to the unemployed.
Just as in Finland, a very small number of homeless are employed; only approximately 5% have a full or part time job (Annika Remaeus, July 3, 2012, email message to author). Mrs. Remaeus stated that those most likely to have an education are immigrants, but they cannot use it in the labor market because of the language barrier. As was seen earlier in table 1, immigrants from Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Poland make up 34% of the homeless population while they are only 14% of the total population. Mrs. Remaeus stated that the main reason for this overrepresentation of immigrants is discrimination in the labor market, as immigrants are not awarded permanent jobs. Landlords in turn only accept people with permanent jobs.
It is unclear how many of the homeless immigrants are undocumented. In Sweden, undocumented immigrants do not have any rights to social services (Annika Remaeus, July 3, 2012, email message to author). In Sweden (as in Finland), homelessness among immigrants can be considered a failure of integration, though government authorities do not seem to acknowledge this link, and dispute data that does exist. At a Washington, DC Migration Policy Institute panel regarding the role of national governments in promoting immigrant integration, I asked the Swedish State Secretary to the Minister for Integration, Jasenko Selimovic, to elaborate on immigrant homelessness in Sweden. He stated:
The Committee of Social Rights monitors state parties’ implementation of the European Social Charter, which guarantees a series of economic and social rights to all. In a January 2012 report, the Committee found that the UK did not effectively guarantee Roma families’ right to housing. The government refused the Roma camping permits at a rate of 90% (CoE 2012, 10). In addition, there is a length of residence requirement known as the Habitual Residence Test (HRT) that all applicants wanting to receive social housing must fulfill. It was found that the rate of refusal on this basis was “significantly higher” for foreigners than for UK nationals (CoE 2012, 24).
The European Committee Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), another Council of Europe institution, issued a report in 2010 in which it found that minority groups fare relatively worse in social indicators in the UK. For example, minority pupils were disproportionally excluded from attending school; black children were twice as likely to be excluded than whites, and black Caribbean children in particular were three times as likely to be excluded (ECRI 2010, 28). Therefore, black children automatically start off at disadvantage. There are other indicators as well that can explain why minority groups would be overrepresented among the homeless in the UK. The report also indicated a gap in employment between minority groups and others (ECRI 2010, 30). In addition, black and Bangladeshi households had the lowest levels of owner occupation in 2007, or owned homes, signifying a lack wealth (ECRI 2010, 34). Finally, blacks were overrepresented in the prison population (ECRI 2010, 34).
These findings for the UK indicate that discrimination in the housing and social housing market, and overall social exclusion can explain minority homelessness there. With regards to the situation of migrants in particular, there is differential access to social housing and other benefits based on immigration status. The local government councils set up to address housing requests do not have a legal obligation to provide any type of emergency housing assistance to those deemed ineligible for assistance (Shelter.org, 2012). Those not eligible for assistance are “foreign nationals who need permission to enter or remain in the UK” (Shelter.org, 2012). It remains unclear whether overnight shelters in particular require identity checks, forcing the undocumented onto the streets; they would be counted among the homeless by the street outreach count.
Homelessness assistance in general in the UK is reserved for British citizens who have not lived abroad, persons legally working in the UK from the European Union and the European Economic Area, and refugees and those granted humanitarian protection; it is important to note that within the context of access to more long term social housing for those non-citizens legally residing, the persons must be employed at the time of application (Shelter.org, 2011). The undocumented also have trouble accessing healthcare and education. There are restrictions on non-emergency healthcare. Furthermore, schools are asked to report undocumented children to the immigration authorities (Migration Policy Institute, 2009).
Policies on access to social housing and homelessness assistance are similar in France. In 2007, France adopted a justiciable right to housing law which granted people the right to seek legal redress for lack of access to housing, however, this right is only reserved for legal residents (Feantsa.org, 2007). In the fields of education, healthcare, and other welfare assistance, the undocumented are off the radar as well. According to a 2012 Council of Europe report on France, among immigrants, only documented immigrants have the right to medical checkups; the undocumented are not eligible for State Medical Assistance (CoE 2012, 22-23). Citizens, people from the EU/European Economic Area, and legal citizens have the same level of entitlement to family benefits in the form of monetary assistance, but the undocumented do not have access, and parents of foreign children must produce documents that prove a legal immigration status before receiving such assistance (CoE 2012, 18-22). Furthermore, at the time of the report, the European Social Rights Committee was unclear on whether undocumented children had the right to education in France (CoE 2012, 23).
As see in Table 1 earlier, immigrants are overrepresented among the homeless in France, especially those of a different ethnic background. However, it is not only immigrants but also those of an immigrant background or perceived of being immigrant that have difficulties in other social sectors, which could explain minority homelessness in France as well, just as in all of the European countries mentioned to date. First, discrimination exists in the fields of education and employment even when persons are documented. For example, people perceived of being immigrant of North African descent, or people perceive as being Muslim face obstacles in employment. Children with immigrant backgrounds (especially children born in France of North African descent) are overrepresented in poorer performing schools, which are also located in segregated neighborhoods (ECRI 2010, 20-22).
Direct discrimination in the housing market is also occurring in France. Even though there is a ban on racial discrimination in housing and there have been court rulings in such cases, a shortage of social housing and low cost rentals ensures competition in this sector. Those of African descent are nine times less likely than French citizens to obtain a private sector apartment applied for (ECRI 2010, 24). The process of allocation of dwellings in the public sector is not transparent and could hide discriminatory practices (ECRI 2010, 24). Among the most vulnerable are Roma migrating from Eastern Europe, despite their EU citizenship. In some municipalities, schools refuse to enroll Roma children in school simply based on their ethnicity (ECRI 2010, 34). Moreover, forced evictions without offers of alternative housing are a constant danger for the Roma in France (ECRI 2010, 33).
In Italy, similar trends regarding the Roma population are seen. Between March and May of 2011, Italian local authorities conducted 154 evictions in Rome in a violent manner, affecting 1,800 Roma; those evictions were not in fulfillment with international standards; personal property was destroyed and no alternative housing was provided (U.S. Department of State, 2011). Roma have been experiencing such problems in Italy for years, and they remain segregated, living in substandard housing such as camps on the outskirts of big cities. Roma children are also underrepresented in schools, and a major driver is the substandard living conditions lacking in electricity and running water (CoE 2011, 22). Roma have been pushed into homelessness since at least 2006 when state and local authorities made a “Pact for Security” to solve the “nomad emergency,” which entailed forced evictions en masse without offers of alternative housing (CoE 2011, 40).
Given these conditions, it is not surprising we see such overrepresentations of minorities among homeless in Italy. As in France, immigrants of African descent are also vulnerable in Italy. Italy has one of the highest immigration rates in Europe, and there is competition for housing and employment there as well. Immigrants work in the lower wage sector, hence as a group they do not earn as much and have a lower standard of living (CoE 2011, 28). Despite their need for social assistance, only Italian citizens and EU citizens are eligible for family benefits such as monetary allowance and purchasing cards (CoE 2011,19).
Third country nationals have been discriminated against in access to public housing regardless of having a legal status. For example, some municipalities introduced a point system for eligibility for public housing where French citizens automatically start off with extra points if they have resided in the particular region for a number of years. In addition, a residence requirement of ten years in Italy or five years in the region is required for third country nationals in some regions (CoE 2011, 44-46). The undocumented only have access to emergency shelter, and in terms of housing, they are the most vulnerable because they are the most likely to end up on the streets, as evictions of undocumented from emergency shelters are not banned (CoE 2011, 43).
The European countries discussed in this section were selected as representatives of different models of homelessness data collection and assistance, such as Nordic, Liberal Atlantic, Continental, and Mediterranean. It appears that these different welfare models have no influence on how homelessness manifests in these countries. There is an overwhelming similarity in how the European countries differentiate between nationals and migrants in terms of access to housing and welfare. In all cases, minority homelessness is linked to social exclusion of minorities and direct discrimination in the housing, employment, and education field. Furthermore, in all cases, the undocumented had no rights to homelessness assistance besides overnight emergency shelter stays, and in many cases it is unable to be proven without field research and discussions with social workers whether these shelters actually accepted undocumented migrants. Immigration laws alone do not explain minority homelessness in these European countries, as Roma EU citizens are the most vulnerable in all countries under study. The next section presents the results from field research in the United States.
Comparing City and Shelter Demographics
Homelessness is an elusive concept, and as previously mentioned, counting the homeless remains challenging for organizations. Nevertheless, I was able to gather limited data hinting that the international problem of minority overrepresentation among the homeless that was found in the preliminary research is reflected at the local level in Washington, Alexandria, and Arlington, specifically in terms of the African American minorities. Although the Community Partnership, a conglomeration of organizations working to end homelessness in Washington, does not issue reports or summaries containing data on the ethnic or racial makeup of the homeless population, I was able to gather some data on clients served by Catholic Charities, which operates the shelters I visited in Washington. Washington, DC has always had a significant African-American population and a strong African-American heritage (Washington.org, 2012) as seen is Figure 1 below. Figure 2 reveals that African Americans are overrepresented among homeless clients that Catholic Charities serves, which could be an indication of a city-wide phenomenon, if it is assumed that other service providers have similar data.
Figure 1. Washington, DC demographics
Figure 2. Catholic Charities DC Shelter demographics
Source: CC Homeless Management Information Systems Coordinator, June 4, 2012, e-mail message to author.
In Northern Virginia, a similar theme emerged. The Arlington shelter I visited serves 44 males and females among which 10 are Caucasian. The Alexandria shelter I visited serves 18 males among which 4 are Caucasian. These are also overrepresentations of minorities. These are the demographics I gathered for Alexandria:
Figure 3. Alexandria demographics
Figure 4. Alexandria Shelters demographics
Source: Interview with Kevin Mondloch, Christ House Program Director, July 9, 2012.
Therefore, while this data is limited in that it does not reflect demographics from all homeless shelters, and it does not provide a more detailed breakdown of minorities to include Hispanics and others, there is enough information to at least assume that homelessness disproportionately affects African-Americans in the DC metro area. Social workers have acknowledged and are aware of this phenomenon as well.
Responses of social workers working directly with the homeless provide an added perspective in exploring the research question, however, it must be noted that their answers can be biased by their own background and experience. Their answers are used to highlight certain trends, and cannot prove or disprove the study hypotheses. In addition, the ways in which the social worker thinks about the world also informs his or her practice.
With regards to trends and issues commonly encountered, the three social workers mentioned substance abuse, mental illness, criminal background for males, physical disabilities, lack of income, the high cost of living in D.C., and lack of family support. Social worker #1, who works with homeless men at 801 East Men’s Shelter in Washington, stated that although official D.C. statistics show a rate of substance abuse among the homeless as 15%, these are self-reported, and the actual rate is more along the lines of 70%. Also, he stated that the prevalence of mental illness is approximately 50% (interview with social worker #1, May 16, 2012).3 Social worker #2, also from 801 East, pointed out that there is a nexus between drugs, mental health, and homelessness. Drugs can lead to the mental health problems. Furthermore, those discharged from mental institutions are discharged into the streets (interview with social worker #2, May 16, 2012). Social worker #3, who works with homeless women at Nativity Women’s Shelter in Washington, and who has worked with homeless men in the past, also stated that the mental illness precedes homelessness; usually, the illness manifests later in life. Even though most often treatment precedes homelessness as well, individuals end up in shelters because of a lack of continued family support; the most common mental illnesses she has encountered are bipolar and schizophrenia; there are also personality disorders and depression (interview with social worker #3, June 28, 2012).
While the social workers expressed that there is a link between drug abuse, mental illness, and criminal background leading to homelessness, which would appear to be individual-level causes of homelessness, institutional racism, biases, and historical disadvantages of minorities quickly came up during the interviews. Two of the social workers indicated that there are systemic factors and racial biases at play when it comes to mental health and developmental disability diagnoses, which have implications later in life, holding people back. Many African Americans are hesitant to take pills because of instances whereby doctors in the past misdiagnosed mental issues more severely for African Americans, and these mistakes came to light with severe consequences (interview with social worker #3, June 28, 2012). It has also been found that there is a tendency to diagnose African American children more severely with ADHD rather than ADD. Although a more severe diagnosis results in more government financial support, it’s also more debilitating for opportunities later in life (interview with social worker #1, May 16, 2012).
With regards to the question of minority overrepresentation, when asked why then do these drivers of homelessness affect minorities more than Caucasians, and why minorities are overrepresented in the homeless population, the social workers gave slightly different answers: one expressed the problem along the lines of unintentional discrimination and durable inequality (social worker #1), one believed it is a reflection of African American culture and lifestyle (social worker #2), and the other stated that it is an example of the intentional effort to subjugate minorities in different ways throughout history (social worker #3). There was no agreement as to whether there is a difference in the process of homelessness among different racial/ethnic groups, but there was an agreement that there is no evidence of direct discrimination leading to homelessness in clients’ profiles.
Social worker #2 stated that culture and environment informs how people live their lives, and African Americans are more likely to be raised in a culture of teen pregnancy and drugs leading to criminal activity; he expressed that many of the clients started using drugs as young as 12 years old as a learned habit from family. He stated that he has not come across many Caucasian clients, but from the 3 that he has interacted with since 2010, the reason they became homeless was the same as that of the African American clients; he was hesitant to state that there is a racial/ethnic difference in the experience of homelessness. He stated that immigrants who are homeless have the same problems of involvement with drugs and crime, the only difference being that undocumented clients do not have access to any benefits except staying in overnight shelters that do not require ID checks; he stated that most of the homeless immigrants he works with are actually documented (interview with social worker #2, May 16, 2012).
By contrast, social worker #3 stated that the issues that undocumented clients have are not necessarily the same; they are in a different type of crisis such as running from war, and have trouble trusting and opening up to social workers; the only benefits undocumented homeless receive is medical assistance and stay in overnight shelters. In terms of racial/ethnic differences in experience, social worker # 3 was also of the opinion that Caucasian and African American clients both have mental illnesses coupled with lack of family support, and stresses of everyday life. She did state that there are gender differences, whereby women are much less likely to have a criminal background and more likely to have finished at least high school, while men are more likely to have dropped out (interview with social worker #3, June 28, 2012).
Similar to social worker #2, she pointed to social environment to explain minority overrepresentation among the homeless. She stated that there are simply more blacks, specifically black males, growing up in crisis situations whereby they are living in poverty and drug abundant neighborhoods. Family support for those who fall into homelessness is not there due to the single parent home phenomenon as well as the fact that parents themselves may have fallen victims to drugs. By contrast to social worker #3, she emphasized a genuine effort to keep African Americans down, also highlighting the overrepresentation of African American males in prisons who are then released into the streets. She believes that there is
Social worker #1 provided similar answers to explain minority overrepresentation, bringing attention to the lack of family support due to the breakdown of the family, poverty, and drugs in African-American communities. More specifically, he said the reason why whites who fall into drug and alcohol addiction are not as much seen among the homeless population is because they have the family support. He also added that most of the (African American) clients encountered come from areas with bad educational systems and hence are high school drop outs, setting them onto a disadvantaged path; social worker #1 also pointed to the overrepresentation of African American males in prisons due to the drugs sentencing disparities of the 1980s and 1990s, and related this to homelessness because it put so many into joblessness and a downward spiral (interview with social worker #1, May 16, 2012).
With regards to whether African American clients experience direct discrimination that could have been a cause of their homelessness, social worker #1 mentioned the effect of the criminal background for males. He stated that the impact of the background depended on the nature of the crime; for example, those with sex offenses have the most difficult time because they are banned from public housing, and sometimes not even social workers want to provide assistance. Those with drug convictions and other felonies also have difficulties when it comes to finding employment. Overall, social worker #1 concluded that the overrepresentation of minorities among the homeless is not due to direct discrimination or an intentional effort by some to subjugate others, but an institutional racism dating back to slavery, and permeating into everyday experiences of many African Americans (interview with social worker #1, May 16, 2012).
With regards to whether people who are homeless want to work and are seeking employment, the social workers pointed to the fact that many work either part time or full time, but there are inhibitors such as the low skill levels mentioned previously, disabilities, and the shelter system itself. Social worker #3 highlighted that some of the female clients she’s worked with have college degrees but are held back by a mental illness (interview with social worker #3, June 28, 2012). Social worker #1 that the disabilities encountered among clients are primary physical, requiring heavy medication leading people to become “sleepwalkers..who are not able to function” (interview with social worker #1, May 16, 2012). Social worker #1 stated that emergency shelters, which only allow people to stay overnights, are not set up in a way that enables people to look for employment because clients have to carry their items with them throughout the day. In addition, while there are homeless empowerment programs that provide technical skills and assistance with getting a job, there are very limited resources available (interview with social worker #1, May 16, 2012).
This section discusses how the interview results compare with the hypotheses developed. Given that the names of the interviewees will remain anonymous, they will be referred to as participants and have been given a number; the sequence of the numbers does not reflect the sequence in which participants were interviewed. Below is a demographic snapshot of the forty-four participants interviewed for this study.
The average age for women was 50 and that for men was 52. While race and immigration status are not comparable categories, for example a person can be a Caucasian immigrant, there is no overlap or double count represented in the below charts. For the purposes of this study, all African American and Caucasians were born in the United States, and all Caucasian immigrants were counted in the immigrant category. The demographic profile of the study participants was not preselected; most participants are African American due to their overrepresentation in the shelters, as previously discussed.
Figure 5. Demographic snapshot of study participants
Figure 6. Study participants by gender
Table 4. Percentages of participants that possess mental illnesses, physical disabilities, and alcohol and/or drug addiction issues.
Number of Participants
Mental Illness (%)
Physical Disabilities (%)
Alcohol and/or Drugs (%)
African Americans (21)
This section tests hypothesis #2, that all people that are homeless possess vulnerabilities interfering with their ability to gain stable living such as: mental illness, drug and alcohol addictions, physical disabilities, and domestic violence histories most notably in women. The table above is a snapshot giving insight into the percentages of people interviewed that possess these individual level factors discussed in the literature review. This section provides examples and describes stories of people whose mental illnesses, addiction issues or physical disabilities seemed to have played a central role in their homelessness. Results show that these issues do not play a central role in all people. The totals represent numbers of people who have each of these issues out of the total number of participants, and the percentages in each categorically defined row (African American, etc.) represent the numbers of people who have those issues out of the total numbers of people in each particular category (row).
Often times, a person possessed multiple such stressors, which points to the interrelatedness of all of these factors; in these cases that person was counted three times, in each row. Emotional or physical abuse was often encountered in people that had mental illnesses or addiction issues. As seen in table 4 above, the most significant result is that immigrants interviewed were not as likely to have addiction problems, mental disorders, or physical disabilities. This implies that other factors are important in immigrant homelessness, which will be discussed in a later section.
As reflected in table 4, in terms of total numbers, the majority of those interviewed did not have mental illnesses, addictions, or physical disabilities, though a significant amount did. As seen, these factors affect both Caucasians and African Americans, but the greatest observation in addition to the observation regarding immigrants is that Caucasians interviewed were more likely to have mental illnesses or physical disabilities. However, the experiences and ways in which mental illnesses, drugs and alcohol, and physical disabilities interacted were the same for both groups.
For the nineteen women, a total of eight suffered from a mental illness, six from addictions, five from a physical disability, and five from some type of abuse. Mental illness seemed to play a predominant role in cause of homelessness in four women. For example, participant #3 (African American), 41 years old, has schizophrenia and was not able to take her medication for months due to a lapse in health insurance after losing her job (interview with participant #3, May 14, 2012). In another example, it was evident that participants #12 and #13 (Caucasians) were severely paranoid because their stories did not make sense. Participant #12, 57 years old, claimed she is awaiting a meeting with the Justice Department; she is also legally blind (interview with participant #12, May 15, 2012). Participant #13, 56 years old, claimed her house along with the company she was working for were both blown up; she also has a heart condition and claimed the hospital sent her to the shelter 12 years ago to recover (interview with participant #13, July 11, 2012).
The fourth woman whose mental illness seemed to directly contribute to homelessness was participant #15 (Caucasian). She is 32 years old and was at one point institutionalized. She witnessed severe abuses at a mental hospital in Iowa, where people were given “shock therapy” and left “soiled” (interview with participant #15, July 11, 2012). She stated that her mental health inhibited her from finishing college or keeping a stable job (interview with participant #15, July 11, 2012). Participant #15 also had drugs and alcohol addiction issues, and she was kicked out of school for it. She was abused by her father when young, and was placed in foster care (interview with participant #15, July 11, 2012).
Participant #6 (African American) is 59 years old and has a mental illness; she lost employment directly due to alcohol and drugs, which contributed to slack performance (interview with participant #6, June 4, 2012). In another example, participant #9 (African American) is 56 years old and is bipolar; she was also addicted to heroin, which led her to spend rent money on drugs; she also injured her back at work and lost her job (interview with participant #9, June 4, 2012). Participant #16 (Caucasian) is 45 years old and was physically abused by her stepfather, who pulled a gun and a knife on her; she was a single mother raising her two children when she suffered a stroke which left her disabled, unable to feel her right arm and side of the face. She lost her job and eventually ran out money. She also had alcohol addiction issues in the past and was diagnosed with depression (interview with participant #16, July 17, 2012).
In three other examples from the women’s stories, physical disabilities or abuse played a strong role. Participant #2 (African American) is 37 years old and had severe back problems such that she could not maintain her job as a driver. She experienced abuse as a child and did not have a good relationship with her mother; her mother did not want to provide her with a place to stay, so she spent months in a motel before coming to the shelter (interview with participant #2, May 15, 2012). Participant #14 (Caucasian) is 60 years old had a spine problem since 2005, which restricted her ability to work. In addition, she was severely abused by her boyfriend such that she ended up in the hospital. Her boyfriend kicked her out of the house and she did not have anywhere to go; her daughter and brother did not want to help (interview with participant #14, July 11, 2012).
In another instance, abuse at work played a critical role. Participant #19 is 57 years old, an immigrant and Hawaiian native with an MSW degree, who was working for a research company in DC. She was sexually assaulted by her boss at an office party, but felt pressure not to press charges because of the publicity and the fact that he was very prominent. She attempted to leave the company, however her boss would not nullify the contract, and she would be in breach of contract. Not wanting to return back to work and having exhausted all financial resources on lawyer fees, she lost her apartment and is staying in the shelters until the contract expires and she can find another job (interview with participant #19, June 4, 2012).
Abuse was not only a women’s experience. Three out of the twenty-five men experienced abuse as children. These three also had mental health issues and addictions. Out of the twenty-five men, a total of twelve had an addiction issue, nine had a mental health issue, and five had a physical disability. I found that as opposed to women’s experience, men who had drug issues also had interactions with the criminal justice system. All but one of the African American men who had drug issues had a criminal past, and three of the seven Caucasian men did; these stories will be given special attention and elaborated upon in the next section. By contrast, only one woman had an imprisonment history, participant #9 (African American) mentioned earlier, whose heroin addiction led her to buy drugs from an undercover police officer; she ended up pleading guilty and serving one night in jail (interview with participant #9, June 4, 2012).
For two of the men that experienced abuse, it was evident that the abuse and negative childhood was the root cause that set them on a disadvantaged life course. For two of the men that experienced abuse, jail was preceded by foster care, orphanage or juvenile detention, which poorly prepared them for adulthood; the institutional setting culminating with the homeless shelter, is most of what they have experienced. For example, both participant #7 and #15 expressed that they learned how to survive on the streets and do illegal activities in juvenile detention. Participant #7 is a 57 years old African American suffering from depression and other mental illnesses, who was abandoned by his parents at an early age; he never knew his father, and his mother had eight other children and was severely depressed (interview with participant #7, June 7, 2012).
Participant #7 started stealing young so that he could feed himself; he eventually stopped going to school because other kids would make fun of his ragged clothes. He ended up in an orphanage, where the environment was abusive and corporal punishment was practiced. Looking back, participant #7 stated that the orphanage environment was not conducive to learning, and there were gaps in schooling. After the orphanage, feeling angry and abandoned, participant #7 lashed out and was placed in juvenile for assault and fight charges. After juvenile, he was in and out of jail a total of twenty-five years, mostly for drug possession and distribution charges. He also has a mental illness that might have driven him to attempt to kill his grandmother who was on life support (interview with participant #7, June 7, 2012). Participant #7 expressed that he has never had a job and that his criminal background is a hurdle for getting employment now (interview with participant #7, June 7, 2012).
Participant #15 is a 53 years old Caucasian male with a similar institutional history. He has been diagnosed with sever depression. He grew up in a military family experiencing severe physical and emotional abuse, which led him to run away from home at twelve years old. He was then taken to juvenile detention for two years, and later went to jail for three years for breaking and entering. He also went to jail later on for drug possession charges. As opposed to participant #7, participant #15 had a strong employment record, having worked as a carpenter and electrician, at one point even making $78,000 year. He was briefly married and owned a house, but the divorce, loss of job, and addiction issues led him onto the streets. He stated that he always lied about his past and was not able to make friends; he had no friends or family to rely on in times of trouble. Participant #15 stated that his criminal background was not an issue in getting employment in the past because there were no “instant background checks,” as opposed to now (interview with participant #15, July 9, 2012).
This section has reviewed the role of individual level vulnerabilities in cause of homelessness of interview participants, testing hypothesis #2. There is no question that individual attributes lead to homelessness in some cases, as seen in the examples. However, results show that hypothesis #2 is not supported because not all people possess individual vulnerabilities. It must be stated however that selection bias could have influenced the results, as other people with mental illnesses may have been embarrassed to participate, as they know there is a stigma attached to mental illness.
The results raise questions as to why there are categorical differences. As seen, immigrants had almost no problems with addictions, mental health, or physical disabilities. Also, Caucasians were more likely to have mental illnesses and physical disabilities. Men, in particular African American males, were more likely to have a criminal record linked to their problems with drugs. These results support my argument that individual level factors do not explain homelessness in all cases, much less minority overrepresentation among the homeless. Before testing the durable inequality hypothesis and the human rights framework, it is worth looking at how structural level factors discussed in the literature compare against the interview results.
This section compares the interview results against the hypothesis that homelessness is primarily driven by structural factors such as lack of availability of low income housing, lack of family support due to the destruction of the nuclear family, and low levels of education and job skills of people that are homeless. Table 5 below presents information on the education level of the interview participants:
Table 5. Education level of interview participants (male and female).
# of participants (44)
As seen in table 5, most participants had some college or additional skills training after high school. A total of three women and six men had some type of low skills, such as: customary engineering (fixing type writers); trade school; electrician (2); technical skills; computer skills to fix system failures; cosmetology (2); culinary training. This group of people was composed of five African Americans, three Caucasians and one immigrant. The group of people who reported having some college was composed of nine African Americans, five Caucasians, and two immigrants.
The two participants with AA degrees were both Caucasian males, and it seems their degrees were not enough to secure stable employment. Participant #11 is 58 years old; the reason he is homeless is a family inheritance dispute between him and his sisters, which followed his mother’s death. He had been working in construction and living with his mother to take care of her. Most of the income was paid on taxes and lawyer fees for the dispute with his sisters. He was eventually kicked out of the house with nowhere else to go (interview with participant #11, June 7, 2012). Participant #16 also has an AA degree, and things started falling apart when his skills were no longer needed. After receiving his degree, he served in the Navy and then received a well paying defense contract job. He stated he was laid off because “they said there was no more need for me” (interview with participant #16, July 10, 2012). After that, all his jobs were low paying and of a temporary nature, such as working on houses. Participant #16 was able to pay for a room rental, but this ended when his landlord passed away and he was kicked out. He stated that “it turned out it was cheaper living in the woods” and he started sleeping in the woods next to his work. He was employed for a long time while sleeping in the woods, and has only been in the shelter for three months. Participant #16 does not have any mental illness, addiction issues or criminal background (interview with participant #16, July 10, 2012).
Of those with BA and MA degrees, five are immigrants and two are African American females. The immigrants did not receive their degrees in the United States; summaries from interviews with the immigrants will be discussed in a later part of the paper. The story of one of the African American females with a BA degree was described earlier, where the lapse in schizophrenia medication after being laid off contributed to her homelessness. The other woman with a BA degree did not have any mental illnesses or addiction issues, and the primary cause of her homelessness seemed to be unemployment coupled with lack of family support. Participant #4 is 33 years old with a BA in electronic systems; she started working for a company fresh out of college and relocated to DC due to the job in 2007. Shortly after, the company downsized and moved to the West coast, and she was laid off. She exhausted all unemployment benefits, which she was able to pay rent with. Her family only helped her for a few months. She exhausted all of her savings and came to the shelter in January of 2012 (interview with participant #4, May 22, 2012).
These examples illustrate that low levels of education and skill levels do play a role in leading to homelessness. Most had some college or some type of skills training, which prove to no longer be enough to maintain stable employment in the current economy. Many of the college degrees were held by immigrants who received them in their countries of origin; these are not transferable. The educational levels reflect the type of employment participants had prior to experiencing homelessness. Table 6 below gives information on the type of employment that preceded homelessness, and the numbers of people employed while homeless:
Table 6. Type of employment
# of participants (44)
Employed while homeless
The high skilled jobs were in the fields of office administration, defense contracting-electronics, computer software, communications and technical psychiatry. One person reported making $60,000 a year at one point (interview with participant #20, June 18, 2012). Another person reported making $75,000 a year (interview with participant #10, June 4, 2012). This shows that no one is immune from homelessness, though the most vulnerable are those with low skilled jobs and lack of education. Many people interviewed were currently employed or employed at some point while homeless, but the income was not enough to pay for a rental; most of these jobs were low skilled. A total of 17 participants were either currently employed or employed while homeless at some point, which equates to 39%, a significant amount. This group included four women and thirteen men, of which eight were African American, six were immigrant, and three were Caucasian. The phenomenon of working while homeless dispels some myths or stereotypes that view the homeless person as lazy or pariah of society. Most people interviewed were also on a waiting list for low income housing, which is a slow process, as some have been waiting for years. Hence, structural factors such as low skill levels and lack of education are causal factors in homelessness, especially when these are coupled with lack of family support and lack of affordable housing.
Lack of family support and singlehood was one of the strongest factors that seemed to play a role in the homelessness of the participants. All nineteen women were single at the time of the interview. Most had never been married. Eight women had children out of wedlock, and this crossed racial/ethnic lines. Some had suffered abuse from boyfriends, as discussed in the previous section. One woman was a widow, which seemed to directly contribute to her homelessness. Participant #11 is a 60 years old African American woman who lost her home when her husband passed away. She had been working low skilled jobs such as personal caretaker and in the food service industry, and was contributing financially to the house payments, although nothing was in her name. After her husband’s death, she exhausted most savings on the funeral expenses and lost the house. She stayed with her son for two years, but him and his family eventually kicked her out (interview with participant #11, June 4, 2012).
Sixteen men of diverse racial/ethnic or immigration background were single and never married, and the rest were divorced. However, this particularly affected African American men, seven of which had never been married and some of which also had drug issues and criminal backgrounds, alluded to in Pettit and Western’s life courses theory. The life course theory was also applicable to two Caucasians who had been imprisoned. Participant #14 is a 37 years old single Caucasian male who went to prison two times for cocaine distribution; he had no savings when he got out and stayed with friends for a short period. He did not want to rely on his father because he had a bad relationship with him and had a mental illness; his mother was independent and did not want to rely on her either (interview with participant #14, July 9, 2012). Participant #17 is a 39 years old single Caucasian male who also went to prison for drug charges. He did get a job in construction but was living on the streets because he was spending the money on drugs and alcohol. Participant #17 is an American who was abandoned by his mother as a baby in Japan, and later adopted by an American family that was in the Foreign Service. He moved to the U.S. as an adult together with his family, but ended up homeless after his family did not accept him using drugs and alcohol in the house (interview with participant #17, July 10, 2012).
Table 7 below presents levels of family support received by those participants who were willing to discuss this aspect.
Table 7. Family Support
# of participants
Sought and not received
The decision to seek or not seek family support did not vary by race, ethnicity, or immigration status, although some of the immigrants were alone in the United States, hence the question did not apply to them. The greatest number of participants decided not to pursue help from the family, viewing it as shameful; this points to the role of individualism in U.S. homelessness. For example, one woman said it was “embarrassing” to rely on her parents; she became homeless in New Jersey, but moved to Washington, DC so that no one would recognize her, as she believed people view you as “homeless and worthless” (interview with participant #17, May 14, 2012). Another woman said “ I have to make it on my own” (interview with participant #1, May 14, 2012). One man said in regards to staying with his family: “I didn’t want to stay with them because I have to be my own person” (interview with participant #9, June 13, 2012).
As seen, there is great interaction between the vulnerability that comes with low skill levels, lack of education, addictions or mental illnesses, and criminal background coupled with lack of family support and singlehood. This section has tested hypothesis #3, which hypothesized that people that are homeless could not maintain housing due to structural factors such as lack of affordable housing and lack of family support coupled with low job skills and education irrelevant to the economy, hindering access to employment. The results support all aspects of this hypothesis. I also found that the culture of individualism in the United States leads many to rely on the shelter system as a form of independence and a place to move up from. Clearly, the effects of these structural factors crossed racial or immigration status lines. However, even though hypothesis #3 is supported, this is not enough to explain minority overrepresentation, or why minorities should be more affected by these structural factors than Caucasians. As seen, there is no racial or ethnic difference in terms of the impact of these structural factors, but these factors simply impact African Americans more in sheer numbers. In the next section, a closer look will be taken at the categorical differences found in the experience of homelessness.
Categorical Differences in Homelessness (Hypothesis #4, Durable Inequality and Human Rights)
This section of the paper tests hypothesis #4, which hypothesizes that markers of categorical inequality, social exclusion, and direct or indirect discrimination are evident in the experience of homelessness of immigrants and African Americans, which can explain minority overrepresentation among the homeless. Specifically, the interview results are compared against the markers of durable inequality discussed in the literature review: parents of African Americans did not own a home as opposed to those of Caucasians that were interviewed; a significant number of African Americans will be homeless as a direct result of foreclosures due to discriminatory lending practices; African Americans and immigrants experienced direct discrimination; African American males had been incarcerated. In addition, drawing from earlier results, it is hypothesized that individual level factors are not the primary reasons of homelessness for minorities, as immigrants are less likely to suffer from mental illnesses, addictions, or have criminal backgrounds, and are more likely to be undocumented and lack access to healthcare, benefits, and employment. Moreover Caucasians are more likely to have mental illnesses as opposed to African Americans or immigrants.
The question of home ownership of parents was only asked of African Americans and Caucasians in order to determine a wealth gap, as lack of home ownership is a sign of generational poverty driven by the previous inability of African Americans to own homes, a legacy of slavery and discrimination. It was found that of the thirty-three African American and Caucasian participants, only seven grew up in an owned home. This group was made up of five out of twenty-one African Americans and two out of twelve Caucasians. Therefore, what is true is that both the overwhelming majority of Caucasians and African Americans did not grow up in an owned home. My results did not indicate that Caucasians were more likely to grow up in an owned home. It is possible that a lengthier study would have yielded different results that would have supported the wealth gap hypothesis of the Rosenheck et al study.
With regards to foreclosure, this was a factor in only two participants: an immigrant and an African American. Participant #17, the 45 years old woman from Jamaica lost her house after losing her job and exhausting unemployment benefits. She had been living on her own after getting a divorce. She stated that before losing the house, she did not have the information she later found could have helped the situation; she was not aware that she could have continued staying in the house if she would have rented from the bank, or of the fact that foreclosure lawyers existed (interview with participant # 17, May 14, 2012). A lack of access to information also characterized the other situation. Participant #1, a 55 years old African American male, was living in his son’s house and contributing to paying the bills. He stated that when his son bought the house, the realtor rushed them, did not give good advice and did not try to lower the mortgage. They also did not understand why they had to pay for previous bills. Participant #1 also did not know anything about foreclosure lawyers (interview with participant #1, May 31, 2012).
These two stories are not sufficient to indicate that a systematic predatory, discriminatory lending problem was found among African American participants, whereby financially vulnerable people were targeted into buying homes, leading to foreclosure and homelessness; although, for the two participants that experienced foreclosure, a lack of access to critical information did play a role. In general, results do not support the idea that foreclosure was a significant factor in the homelessness of the participants, though a larger study into family homelessness might have yielded different results.
The wealth gap that would have been evident in home ownership discrepancies and foreclosures would have been two signs of indirect discrimination, but the results did not find these to be present. The third factor that could explain minority overrepresentation is direct discrimination or unfair treatment on the basis of race or immigration status. The question of whether discrimination was experienced was not directly asked; participants were asked open-ended questions and they themselves alluded to it.
Table 8. Participants experiencing discrimination or unfair treatment by race and immigration status
% in each group
Table 8 indicates that African Americans interviewed experienced the most discrimination. Before delving into their stories, it is interesting to note the results regarding Caucasians, whose discrimination was not a result of their race. One of the four stated that he believed the car he was in was pulled over by police because an African American was driving. He stated that “it was a racial profile stop and the cop said we looked suspicious ” (interview with participant #14, July 9, 2012). This incident resulted in jail time and a felony due to possession of opiates. In regards to the felony, he stated: “ there is no question or doubt that employers are holding it against me” (interview with participant #14, July 9, 2012). Two other Caucasians experienced discrimination in employment due to a felony on the record. Participant #15 stated: “a lot of companies don’t want to touch you ” (interview with participant #15, July 9, 2012). Participant #17 stated that he remembers one job that he did not receive because of his felony (interview with participant #17, July 10, 2012).
Within the context that Caucasians are a minority in the shelter system, racial dynamics were at play there as well. Two Caucasians, not represented in table 8, seemed to display negative attitudes towards the others in the shelter as well as receive negative attitudes, something not heard in interviews with African Americans. For example, in brining up shelter life, one Caucasian woman referring to the others in the shelter said:
As seen in table eight above, two immigrants alluded to discrimination or unfair treatment. Participant # 20 is a 45 years old Hispanic male who stated that he does not feel integrated in the United States because of the language barrier; he feels that his English is a handicap that holds him back in interactions with employers: “people notice that [the accent] and immediately I’m different” (interview with participant #20, June 18, 2012). He also stated that he believes he experienced a typical case of profiling in Florida, where police “harassed him” by following him and stopping him for no reason (interview with participant #20, June 18, 2012). The second immigrant believed he was erroneously denied social security benefits therefore discriminated against based on immigration status. Even though he is a legal resident with a green card, he stated that the Social Security Administration denied him benefits claiming he doesn’t have status (interview with participant #23, June 18, 2012).
Therefore, direct discrimination was not a significant factor in the lives of a majority of Caucasians, and surprisingly, it was not a factor in the lives of most of the immigrants interviewed. African American experiences proved otherwise. A total of four African American women and seven African American men alluded to discriminatory or unfair treatment preceding homelessness. Their accounts bring forth noteworthy dynamics with regards to race relations. Four of the eleven African Americans had such negative experiences with other minority groups such as Hispanics and immigrants, rather than Caucasians. Participant #2 expressed that her lighter complexion resulted in undue attention from other African Americans in DC, who gave her a “you must think you’re better than” attitude (interview with participant #2, May 15, 2012). She also felt discriminated against by Hispanics in Texas, as that group was a majority where she resided (interview with participant #2, May 15, 2012).
Participant #4, who was looking for employment at the time of the interview stated that when a friend referred her for a job, she was denied, being explicitly told that another undocumented person who was a family member of the employer would be hired because the undocumented person would work for a lower wage. The woman also stated that, having been in the employer’s seat in the past, she has had experience with “hiring your own and in turn not being hired [because of your race]” (interview with participant #4, May 22, 2012). In addition, the woman stated that once employers feel a person is homeless, there is a small likelihood that person would be hired (interview with participant #4, May 22, 2012).
Participant #1 believed that discrimination by a Hispanic female manager led to him losing his job. Participant #1 was officially fired from a manual labor job in DC due to two no call no shows, even though he believes the first no show was not counted for others because there was a snow storm. He stated that the Hispanic manager treated African Americans different and more harshly, by making them have to
Participant #9’s incident also occurred at his place of employment. Participant #9 did not specifically relate the details of the incident, but he expressed that he felt discriminated against by his Mexican restaurant manager, who was “trying to push his weight around” and who “fired me over something stupid” (interview with participant #9, June 13, 2012). He stated: “I think it was racially motivated” (interview with participant #9, June 13, 2012). Participant #9 took the case to an employment compliance department but was advised he did not have enough do prove discrimination (interview with participant #9, June 13, 2012).
As seen in these experiences, racial dynamics are complex, and discrimination can originate from other groups rather than from the dominant group. Many of the phenomena Tilly discussed were evident in these participants’ lives. The stories allude to exploitation, such as when it was more beneficial to hire the undocumented worker. Opportunity hoarding is also evident, as the racial divisions between Hispanics and African Americans might originate from two minority groups attempting to compete against each other for scarce resources. These stories cannot be verified or legal determinations be made, but participants’ perceptions and feelings indicate that the dynamics involved in durable inequality have a role in minority homelessness, as these groups must face obstacles that are engrained in the fabric of society; many of the people mentioned lost employment and the fragile livelihood they were holding on to due to such incidents.
Participant #7 is an African American woman who believes she was discriminated against when she lost her job. She was working as a dietary supervisor at a hospital and was fired for insubordination by her Caucasian manager, who had not given her any warnings in the past. Because of the insubordination, she was not able to receive unemployment benefits. She did not appeal the decision because she did not feel the appeals process worked in the favor of employees (interview with participant #7, June 4, 2012). Participant #9 also worked in a hospital. She believes she was unfairly treated and denied worker’s compensation when she injured her back on the job. She had to pay thousands of dollars in medical bills. Because she did not feel she was fairly compensated for her injury, she sewed the hospital but lost the case due to perceived bad representation. Participant #9 eventually lost her rental and ended up homeless (interview with participant #9, June 4, 2012).
The majority of African American men felt they experienced discrimination in the criminal justice system and process in general. Participant #2 was in and out of jail for nine year on drug charges. He said he had many bad lawyers who did not put forth an effort to defend him, and would urge him to plead guilty even when “I felt the government didn’t have enough evidence to convict me” (interview with participant #2, May 23, 2012). He stated that the felony on his record truly interfered with employment; when he did get a job, he was shunned by colleagues who found out about his past and who “would all of a sudden stop talking to me once they heard” (interview with participant #2, May 23, 2012).
Participant #3 was in and out of jail for eight years on drug charges such as crack and PCP. In one incident he was not carrying drugs and was approached at random:
Participant #4 spent months in and out of jail on drug charges. He feels police discriminated against him in 2011 when stopping him from walking on the sidewalk, for no perceived reason. When he asked why he is being stopped, police told him he was acting erratic and would be taken to the hospital to calm down. There, he was strapped to a bed and did not understand why police charged him with assaulting an officer. His lawyer convinced him to plead guilty and he received two years probation, though initially he stated: “I’m not pleading guilty for something I didn’t do” (interview with participant #4, June 4, 2012).
Participant #6 was similarly convinced to plead guilty, although looking back he feels there wasn’t enough evidence against him when police arrested him for getting into a fight with someone accusing him of selling drugs. Participant #6 believes that a racially charged incident led him and his friend to act erratic and rob a bowling alley, after getting into an altercation with Caucasian employees and after being hit by one of them. He believes negative experiences from his childhood affected him, such as living in a Caucasian neighborhood and having a brick thrown through the window with the quote: “niggers are bad luck” (interview with participant #6, June 7, 2012).
Participant #7 was involved in a similar incident involving a public place, in the 1970s; him and his friend were at the store in a predominantly Caucasian neighborhood when the store manager accused them of stealing, and wanted to check their bags. They resisted, and the police arrived, but by that time the store manager initiated a fight. Nothing was found in the briefcase and all charges were dropped. Participant #7 stated: I believe it was racial bias” (interview with participant #7, June 7, 2012).
Therefore, African Americans interviewed experienced the most direct discrimination. Most of these experiences occurred at the place of employment. For the men, jail and the institutional racial bias were the most common factors. Women did not have this background. A total of nine out of ten African American men had been imprisoned, mostly on drug charges. This phenomenon confirms the life course hypothesis. While it is also true that the majority of the Caucasian men interviewed, five out of seven, also had a criminal background, only three of them had issues comparable to those of African Americans. Two of them did not have serious charges, for example participant #11 was arrested for a weekend because his sister, whom he was fighting a custody battle with, alleged he was violent (interview with participant #11, June 7, 2012). The second Caucasian man was arrested in 1970s for marijuana use, and stated that this was not put on his record and it did not interfere with employment; it was evident that his mental health contributed to his homelessness (interview with participant #12, June 18, 2012).
Therefore, only three Caucasian men had criminal justice backgrounds comparable to those of African Americans. In comparison, they were also pressured to plead guilty, and some felt that public defenders were not in their best interest; similarly to African Americans, they had no support coming out of jail and ended up on the streets, with difficulties finding employment. It is difficult to determine whether the African American men interviewed had a tougher time as a result of the criminal background, but what is clear is that minorities are more affected by these issues and these are connected to homelessness.
It is important to note that none of the immigrants had any criminal justice backgrounds. As previously noted, immigrants did not have any direct experiences with discrimination, and they did not have issues with addictions or mental health. Many were college educated, though their education was from the country of origin. The homelessness of the immigrants interviewed was driven by lack of employment. Within this context, lack of documentation was only a driver for three of the eleven immigrants. Participant #21, a male, is an undocumented immigrant from Honduras who came to Miami in 1980, and was issued a temporary green card in 1985. He worked legal jobs in carpentry for a time period until his documents expired, after which he moved to DC and worked illegally at Home Depot. During this time period, he was able to pay for rental and motels until he had a car accident in which the other driver hit and run, resulting in a physical disability. He was no longer able to work full time, was in the hospital for a year, and has been homeless since 2006. He was not allowed to stay with his brother in Miami because the brother and his family live in public housing (interview with participant #21, June 18, 2012). Clearly, the main reason for his homelessness is lack of family support, documents to work legally, and the physical disability. Because he lacks documents, he did not receive any unemployment benefits and he is not able to receive disability benefits from the government. He currently has a free immigration lawyer (interview with participant #21, June 18, 2012).
Participant #24 is another undocumented immigrant who emigrated from Sierra Leone in 1982. He is fifty two years old and unemployed at the time of the interview, though he had periods of working while homeless for day labor jobs or dishwashing in restaurants. Before becoming homeless, he stayed with friends and later rented a place for a short period of time. He was able to get a DC ID because he had a fake social security number. He is not currently receiving any benefits and does not understand why he was terminated from health care. Participant #24 has an immigration lawyer but does not feel the lawyer is helpful; he also stated that “I have no money…I’m unaware of the system” (interview with participant #24, June 28, 2012).
The third undocumented immigrant is also a male. Participant #25 is a forty-three years old immigrant from Argentina who has been in the United States for twelve years. He was initially documented as he came on a work visa but it expired when he was laid off. He lost his apartment a few months after losing the job. He did not have much money saved up because he was sending remittances to Argentina. Just as the two other undocumented persons, participant #25 is not receiving any welfare benefits or health care (interview with participant #25, July 10, 2012).
Documented immigrants were also less likely to receive welfare benefits than African Americans or Caucasians; only five documented immigrants had benefits while all of the other groups expressed that they were receiving benefits. This is also because some documented immigrants lacked information, were confused and intimidated by the application process, or were not interested (interview with participant #19, June 18, 2012). For example, participant #18 believed that the type of green card he has does not make him eligible for benefits. He is legally blind and is not allowed to drive. He came to the United States from Ethiopia in 2010 with the visa lottery program, which issues permanent green cards. He originally came to DC and stayed with friends, then was legally employed at a chicken farm in North Carolina but the contract ended. He moved back to DC but was not accepted to stay with his friend, and is unemployed and looking. He has no family in the United States, has difficulties getting around (interview with participant #18, June 13, 2012). The main reason for his homelessness is mainly lack of employment (interview with participant #18, June 13, 2012).
Even though most of the immigrants interviewed were documented, their vulnerabilities were similar to the undocumented. All the immigrants had been in the United States for years but felt estranged and found it difficult to reach stability financially. Remittances and supporting family back home seemed to be an important factor. For example, participant #22 immigrated to the United States in 1979 as a political prisoner from Cuba, with legal documents. He moved to DC in 2002 after no longer being able to find a job in Miami. Since he has been in DC, he has lived in the shelter while working part time at Safeway and sending money to his family in Cuba (interview with participant #22, June 18, 2012). Participant #23 immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1999 legally, and was self-employed as a full time driver. When his wife fell ill, they moved to DC to be able to visit a cancer center. They did not have enough money to rent a place, so him and his wife are staying at different shelters (interview with participant #23, June 18, 2012).
Table 9. Interview-based research results as compared to the study hypotheses
Interview-informed research results
1a. Exclusion of undocumented immigrants
Supported -both in Europe and the United States
1b. Direct discrimination in the housing market plays a much stronger role in Europe than in the United States
2. Individual vulnerabilities
Not Supported-the majority did not have mental or addiction issues, though a significant amount did-immigrants were less likely to have individual vulnerabilities-Caucasians were more likely to have physical disabilities or mental issues
3. Low job skills and education hindering access to employment coupled with lack of affordable housing and education; lack of family support
Supported-although most participants had some college and technical skills training, these are no longer enough to succeed in the economy-all of the women interviewed were single; for black men, this intersected with time in prisons;-most did not access family for help, reflecting culture ofindividualism and destruction of the nuclear family
4. Categorically defined differences in the experience of homelessness; markers of durable inequality, social exclusion, and discrimination present
Supported-approximately half of African Americans experienced discrimination-examples of opportunity hoarding and exploitation present-African American males and discrimination in the criminal justice system
Therefore, with regards to the hypothesis that markers of categorical inequality, social exclusion, and direct or indirect discrimination are evident in the experience of homelessness of immigrants and African Americans, results show support. However, from the interviews it cannot be concluded that parents of African Americans were less likely to own a home or that discriminatory lending and foreclosures affected a significant number of African American participants. It was supported African Americans experienced discrimination, which in some cases led to loss of employment. In addition, most African American males had a criminal background and had racially motivated negative experiences with the system. The interviews support the life course hypothesis, and a link was found between incarceration and homelessness; although some Caucasians had such backgrounds, this disproportionately affected blacks. None of the immigrants had criminal backgrounds, addictions, or mental illnesses, and only 27% were undocumented. However, just as was the case with mental illness, it must be noted that other undocumented immigrants might not have wanted to participate in the interviews because of fear. The main reason for immigrant homelessness was lack of support and employment; there was not much difference between the experiences of the undocumented and documented, only that the undocumented were ineligible for welfare benefits.
Results from the field research part of this study reflected many of the factors discussed in the literature review as to the causes of homelessness and minority homelessness in particular. In the beginning, I argued that minorities are overrepresented among the homeless because of durable inequality; the exploitative relationship established during slavery and colonialism depended on the construction of categorical boundaries. These boundaries have become durable and continue to limit or deny certain groups access to resources such as equal jobs, wages, and housing. This was found to be the case in all countries under study. The hypothesis that undocumented immigrants are ineligible for homelessness and welfare assistance is supported in all cases. As opposed to Europe, I did not find instances of direct discrimination in the housing market in the U.S. In general, direct discrimination seems to play a bigger role in Europe than in the United States. On both continents, the structures of durable inequality influence minority homelessness trends despite progress in laws ensuring equal treatment and barring discrimination.
In terms of other comparisons between Europe and the United States, I found that homeless persons are more likely to be employed while homeless in the United States. Perhaps this is because the employment markets are more open than in Europe. Direct discrimination in the United States was most evident among African Americans once the person was already employed. Furthermore, there is a link between minority overrepresentations in the criminal justice systems and homelessness in both the US and UK, while this does not seem to be an issue in the other European countries. On both continents, immigrants were significantly less likely to display individual level vulnerabilities.
The results of the U.S. field research indicate that a major cause of minority homelessness is durable inequality, whereby African Americans are more likely to be affected by structural factors that lead to homelessness such as lack of family support, low education and skill levels, and the life course phenomenon. African American males are more likely to be imprisoned. Individual level factors such as drug abuse, mental health, and addictions were not as crucial, though African American males were more likely to experience the drugs-criminal justice link. Social workers in the United States supported the durable inequality hypothesis. Minority homelessness must be viewed within the prism of human dignity and respect for the full spectrum of rights. Governments must first recognize that an overrepresentation of minorities among the homeless is a problem, and then must address overall wellbeing and life courses of minorities, through particular attention to the link between civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. The human rights approach can challenge durable inequality by challenging exploitative relationships, improving overall quality of life for disadvantaged groups.
In addition to these lessons, as I was conducting the study new questions were raised and topics for further research became evident. Within the context of understanding why minorities are overrepresented, a comparison of the length of time it takes different racial/ethnic groups to get out of homelessness could be a clear indicator of discrimination: in the United States, do Caucasians have more access to resources or upward mobility to get out of homelessness faster (interview with Altaf Husain, June 21, 2012)? Family homelessness is another topic of further research and has been recognized as an emerging crisis. There aren’t enough family shelters in DC to meet this rising need. There has not yet been a study conducted to show a correlation between the economic crisis and rise of family homelessness in the United States (interview with Altaf Husain, June 21, 2012). Comparative studies can also be conducted to determine whether this phenomenon is encountered in Europe as well.
Finally, another topic of further research would be discrimination against people that are homeless once they become homeless, simply because of their status as homeless. All of the people who were interviewed expressed a tendency to hide the fact they are homeless from employers and others for fear of discriminatory treatment. It would be worthwhile to conduct a study determining how these dynamics hold people back from getting out of homelessness. In particular, discriminatory treatment against people who are homeless and have a sex offense in their background should also be studied.
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1.) In the United Kingdom, statutory homeless are people that have a legal claim to housing as considered by the legal authorities. In order to be eligible, one must lack a secure place to live, must have dependent children, apply for homelessness assistance, prove unintentional homelessness, and must pass a series of tests (CRISIS, Statutory Homelessness, 2012. http://www.crisis.org.uk/pages/homeless-def-numbers.html#_ftn).
2.) This research was approved by the Institutional Research Board in the spring semester of 2012.
3.) Names of some participants are being kept confidential.