Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Getting at the root of the racial disparity in homelessness

Matt Driscoll
Matt Driscoll Staff photographer

Jeff Olivet, CEO of Boston-based for Center for Social Innovation, began working on issues related to homelessness and racism 23 years ago.

“It was immediately clear that the racial dimension of this was completely at the root of it,” Olivet said this week by phone from Dallas.

Yet, he continued, “Over the last couple decades, there has been very little, if any, analysis of this question.”

Specific to Tacoma and Pierce County, the question is this: Why do African Americans make up roughly 7 percent of the general population, but 27 percent of the homeless population, according to data collected by the county’s Homeless Management Information System?

7 percent The share of Pierce County’s general population that is African American

27 percent The share of Pierce County’s homeless population that is African American

It’s a confounding disparity seen across the country.

Nationally, Olivet highlighted data taken from the Census Bureau and Department of Housing and Urban Development that shows African Americans make up 13 percent of the overall population, but more than 40 percent of the homeless population.

Even when you control for poverty — nationally, African Americans make up about 13 percent of the general population, while 26 percent live in poverty — “The numbers are really out of whack,” he told me.

“You would think homelessness would be a reflection of poverty, but the fact that that’s 40-plus percent (experiencing homelessness) … . What it says is that poverty is not the only issue driving that.

“What our project’s trying to do is to understand that something else.”

There are no easy answers. In matters of homelessness and racism, there rarely are. Historically, some likely factors jump out — like discrimination in housing and employment, redlining and segregation, and the astounding wealth gap between white and black Americans.

But a new study and initiative, led by Olivet’s Center for Social Innovation and involving 10 communities across the country, including Tacoma and Pierce County, hope to provide a few more.

Olivet said the initiative — which is being called SPARC (Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities) — will combine quantitative data analysis with more anthropological endeavors, including the collection of life histories from African Americans in our community, and across the country, who have experienced homelessness. “It’s important to look behind the numbers and understand the human stories,” Olivet explained of the approach.

Even more importantly, the SPARC initiative intends to help communities like ours not just understand the problem, but combat it.

Along with studying the racial disparity in homelessness, SPARC will engage in community conversations — like one scheduled Dec. 5 from 6-8:30 p.m. at Tacoma’s Urban Grace Church that will serve as a local kickoff event. Throughout the work, representatives from the Center for Social Innovation will also help train providers and activists, and work to foster collaboration in housing, health care, education and criminal justice.

“We’re trying to understand the size and scope of racial disparity in homelessness … and document that, both in terms of numbers and quantitative data, and in stories,” Olivet said. “We think we’ll have a very good picture of not only the scope … but of root causes and potential solutions.”

I think in six or eight months we’re going to have some really interesting stuff to say.

Jeff Olivet, CEO of Boston-based for Center for Social Innovation

“I think in six or eight months we’re going to have some really interesting stuff to say.”

Talk to Tess Colby, housing, homelessness and community development manager for Pierce County Community Connections, and the excitement about the initiative is palpable.

“The (Center for Social Innovation) is really focused both on understanding the why, but not sort of leaving us all hanging. They’ll help us to develop tools and approaches for meaningfully addressing it,” Colby said.

“That’s the single most exciting thing about this. In addition to all of us having open and honest conversations, we will start the process of developing tools.”

Carolyn Weisz, a professor of psychology at the University of Puget Sound, helped facilitate Tacoma and Pierce County’s inclusion in the study — participation that is being funded, in part, by money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Weisz studies racism, homelessness and social perception, and has worked on issues of homelessness for most of the past decade with the county and members of the community.

“It became very obvious that the racial disparities in homeless were huge, locally, and that mirrored national trends,” Weisz said. “And very few people were talking about it.”

In looking at the discourse that surrounds homelessness — and who, historically, has a seat at the table when these conversations take place — Weisz said she “began to worry that it was not getting the policy attention it deserved.”

I asked her why? Nationally, Weisz pointed to what she described as a pervasive “colorblind perspective” that’s often at the root of homelessness policy and rhetoric.

The better we understand (racism), the more we may be able to reduce it and address it, which will ultimately take a chunk out of homelessness.

University of Puget Sound Psychology professor Carolyn Weisz

Weisz said this perspective can dominate because people “simply believe that if they take care of poverty, that will help to reduce racism.”

“Although that may be coming from a place that is well-intentioned, it actually gets in the way of a general understanding of racism,” she continued. “It shines the light on poverty instead of racism, and that can be problematic, although both are important. … The better we understand (racism), the more we may be able to reduce it and address it, which will ultimately take a chunk out of homelessness.”

For Olivet, that’s the whole point.

“There is a lot of talk nationally about ending homelessness, and rightfully so,” Olivet said.

“If we’re serious about that work, we have to deal with root causes.”