Council Confronts Racial Disparities in Homelessness, Reducing Criminal Justice System Involvement

On October 21, our Chair, Department of Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, convened the quarterly meeting of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. At the meeting, Council members confronted important issues related to racial disparities among people experiencing homelessness – issues that we do not talk about nearly enough in this country or even within the homelessness services and housing sectors. 

The data that is available is not perfect, but I believe that the information we do have compels us to act. According to HUD’s 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, people of color make up only about a third of the U.S. population but comprise just over half of all sheltered people experiencing homelessness. These disparities are even starker for African-Americans and Native Americans.

While we do not yet have good data on homelessness on tribal lands, the data that we do have indicates that Native Americans make up 1.2% of the general population, but an estimated 2.3% of people who experience sheltered homelessness off of tribal lands. In communities with a higher Native American population such as Seattle, the rates of homelessness among Native Americans are even more alarming. Seattle recently found that 18% of their unsheltered population identifies as American Indian or Alaskan Native.

While African-Americans make up only 12% of the U.S. population, they comprise an estimated 41% of all sheltered people experiencing homelessness, which tracks very closely with the over-representation of African-Americans within our criminal justice systems. This data indicates that African-Americans are more than 5 times as likely to experience homelessness that White Non-Hispanics.

There are many implications of these numbers – and all of those implications compel us to act. Clearly, racial disparities in experiences of poverty and homelessness are intrinsically intertwined. At our meeting, we discussed two specific ways where this racial injustice manifests itself acutely. First, we discussed the growing problem of criminal justice system involvement among people experiencing homelessness, as homelessness among people of color is clearly intertwined with the racially disparate impact of policies and practices within our criminal justice systems. Secondly, we discussed strategies for ending homelessness among Native Americans, based on Council members’ shared conviction that progress on ending Native American homelessness is essential for the achievement of the Opening Doors goal to set a path to end all types of homelessness by 2020.

In the coming weeks, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness will be talking further about these issues – and the Federal strategies we have developed to address them –  in more depth. We also encourage you to start more conversations on these critical issues within your own communities. 

There is clearly more work that needs to be done to address the institutional challenges and discrimination faced by people experiencing homelessness and I look forward to working with our Federal partners to tackle these issues. In the meantime, I’m excited that the work of our Council was a part of the historic announcements made by the President this past week both on justice reform and reentry and on the needs of Native Americans and tribal communities – and we’ll be offering more reflections on these developments in the weeks ahead as well.