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

By Carmen Radu
2012, Vol. 4 No. 12 | pg. 9/12 |

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

Employment # of participants (44)
Low skilled 36
High skilled 8
Employed while homeless 17

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

Family support # of participants
Not sought 17
Received temporarily 12
Sought and not received 4

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

Discrimination/Unfair Treatment Participants affected % in each group
African American 11 52
Caucasian 3 25
Immigrant 2 18

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).

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