Minorities and Homelessness in the United States and Europe: A Comparative Analysis

By Carmen Radu
2012, Vol. 4 No. 12 | pg. 8/12 |

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.

Education and Job Skills, Family Support, Affordable Housing (Hypothesis #3, structural level)

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).

Education # of participants (44)
High school drop out 2
Diploma/GED 8
Skills/technical training 9
Some college 16
AA 2
BA 5
MA 2

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.

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