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Unraveling The Mystery Of Why So Many African-Americans End Up Homeless

Will James
Marquis McCrary spent stretches of his early twenties homeless in Tacoma

If you walk into any homeless shelter in Washington state, or anywhere in the U.S., you're likely to see a disproportionate number of African-Americans.

It's a sign of a mystery lying at the intersection of race and homelessness in America: African-Americans seem especially vulnerable to losing their homes, even when compared to equally poor white people.

African-Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population and about a quarter of people living in poverty, but an estimated 43 percent of the homeless population. 

Since 2016, an effort to explain that disparity has unfolded in Pierce County and five other communities across the U.S. A Boston-based nonprofit called the Center for Social Innovation is behind the research and released results this year pointing to possible explanations. 

'Network Impoverishment'

"It is not simple enough to say that poverty is the core driver of homelessness," said Marc Dones, who led research on the project before departing for a different job this spring.

Sixty percent of people living in deep poverty are white, but they seem to have protective factors that prevent them from making up an equally large chunk of the homeless population. (The U.S. Census Bureau defines "deep poverty" as living in a household where the income is less than half the federal poverty threshold.) 

"Between deep poverty and homelessness, there's a factor," said Dones, who uses they/them pronouns. "Something is happening in that space that is applying disproportionate pressure on folks of color." 

Dones and their team spent more than a year combing through years of data on homelessness from local agencies in six communities and recording dozens of interviews with African-Amercians experiencing homelessness. 

It was the interviews that yielded a pattern. Dones said many African-Americans spoke of feeling like no one among their family or friends could halt their descent into homelessness because everyone was struggling just as hard.

One day, Dones scribbled something on a legal pad: "Network impoverishment." It became Dones's prevailing theory. 

African-American communities, Dones said, suffer from a lack of "flexible capital." Every dollar earned seems to be accounted for, needed for bills and other necessities. 

"The network itself, because of this total lack of flexible capital, functions in a fragile and an impoverished state," Dones said. 

In other words, it's not just that African-Americans are more likely to be poor. It's that they're more likely to exist in families and communities where everyone they know is poor, too.

That means an African-American is less likely to know a single friend or relative who can lend them $800 to fix a broken-down car they use to get to work. So it's more likely that a relatively minor crisis will cascade into a lost job, unpaid rent and homelessness. 

Even when African-Americans and white people live equally close to the edge of a crisis, it seems like white people have more of a social buffer to keep them from falling off, according to Dones. 

That may explain one preliminary finding in the data. Dones said it appears African-Americans enter homelessness with higher incomes and lower rates of mental illness, drug addiction and other health problems than white people. 

"It seems like folks of color who are experiencing homelessness are generally better off by almost every indicator than their white counterparts," they said.

It's almost as if more has to go wrong in a white person's life for them to become homeless, Dones said.

'You Know Your Limits'

The idea of network impoverishment is familiar to Marquis McCrary, who is black and has spent stretches of his twenties living in shelters and sleeping on buses in Tacoma.

McCrary's struggles with homelessness began when his mother lost their apartment in Fort Worth, Texas. He said management at their building changed; she couldn't keep up with rent hikes; and the family was evicted.

He moved to Washington state to live with his brother, who then fell into financial trouble himself and had to move, leaving McCrary homeless, alone and struggling to build a life in Tacoma.

"I don't even have any friends or family to call for support," he said. "It's one of those things you just kind of know about your family. You know your limits. With mine, it was that we were all kind of figuring things out ourselves."

He saw African-Americans were over-represented in the shelters where he stayed, but assumed that's just how the world worked and didn't think about it. He saw that many of them worked and even saved enough to buy cars to sleep in, but kept returning to the shelter for other resources, seemingly unable to get ahead of their financial problems. 

Meanwhile, he grew frustrated when he met homeless people who were too "stubborn" to call parents who had the resources to help them.

"I'm sorry, but if my mom can help me get out of homelessness, I'm asking her," McCrary said. "I don't care how much I've got to bow down or whatever."

When McCrary talks about what caused him to become homeless, he points to a string of setbacks and misfortunes in his life that left him wondering why all of it was happening to him.

"It's like this fear of life, that it's not being nice to you at the moment," he said. "You know, just give me a break for a second." 

Sometimes McCrary wonders if he spent so much time helping his single mother raise his four siblings, he never learned the skills he needed to survive. 

But Dones sees larger forces at work in the lives of people like McCrary.

"These are folks who have been caught up inside structures that are hundreds of years old," they said. 

Dones said network impoverishment is a legacy of instiutional racism: generations of policies that locked African-American families out of chances to buy homes and build wealth. 

"We have, in a lot of ways, created races of renters and races, or a race, of property owners," they said.

That history is familiar to Americans. But Dones said network impoverishment provides a concrete example of how that history is playing out in people's modern-day lives. 

'Imagine If Someone Had Just Paid The Bill?'

Some working on the front lines of America's homelessness crisis say the idea of network impoverishment is changing the way they think about their work. 

In Pierce County, an analysis of several years of data from the county's homelessness service system found that African-Americans are 26 percent of the homeless population despite being just 7 percent of the overall population and 11 percent of the population in deep poverty.

Tess Colby, who oversees Pierce County's homelessness programs, said it's not that people in her field were blind to race. She said it's more like "race unconscious."

“I think it is impossible not to see the disproportionality in your client base," she said. "But I don’t think that there was a lot of conscious attention paid to it in a way that moved the conversation  away from simply acknowledging and bemoaning the fact to a conversation about, ‘Well, what are the solutions?’”

The solutions, she said, include analyzing racial differences in outcomes more closely and thinking harder about whether any county services are unintentionally biased.

Colby said the county is considering a pilot program that would "deputize" workers at food banks, early childhood education centers, and other organizations to identify families at risk of homelessness and help the county step in to prevent it. She said that idea was sparked, in part, by the research into homelessness and race.

"All of the hundreds of years of racist laws and racist policies, overcoming that is daunting," Colby said. "What I feel like is we as a county can have a more nuanced response. And that's what I'm excited about."

To Dones, the idea of network impoverishment provides evidence that a simple lack of resources — a lack  of "flexible capital" — is at the root of homelessness.

"We give people anything but money," they said. "We'll give you food, we'll give you shelter, we'll give you clean socks. We have a deeply paternalistic relationship to folks experiencing homelessness."

But Dones said it's time to rethink that approach.

"If, you know, the precipitating event was an $800 car repair," they said, "and you're telling me that you've been experiencing homelessness now for four years because your car broke down and you lost your job, imagine if someone had just paid the bill?" 

For McCrary, overcoming network impoverishment has become the focus of his life. 

He's working as a security guard at Tacoma's baseball stadium and saving up money to return to Tacoma Community College. He's created his own network: a group of friends who are letting him stay in their house. 

"If I had four uncles or aunties like this, I feel like half of my family would be alright and I probably wouldn't even be in Tacoma," he said.

McCrary said his mother has been in and out of the hospital with heart problems and unable to work. She and his siblings are once again at risk of falling into homelessness. 

He said his goal in life is simple: to become that one family member who can stop that from happening. 


Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.