African-Americans make up 7 percent of Pierce County's overall population but about 30 percent of the homeless population.
It's a disparity seen across the United States. African-Americans are over-represented among the homeless, even when differing poverty rates among racial groups are accounted for.
Pierce County and the city of Tacoma are joining a national effort to find out why. They're signed up for a study of race and homelessness in 10 communities organized by the Center for Social Innovation, a research and consulting company based in Massachusetts.
Other communities in the study include San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington, D.C., said Tess Colby, who manages Pierce County's homelessness and housing programs.
Nationwide, African-Americans make up 13 percent of the overall population but more than 40 percent of the homeless population, according to the Center for Social Innovation.
African-Americans account for just 26 percent of people living below the poverty line, indicating factors other than poverty are at play, members of the group say.
Colby said the study may delve into issues like structural racism and generational poverty, and how they contribute to the disproportionate number of homeless African-Americans.
One possible factor, she said, is the legacy of “redlining” -- discriminatory government and banking policies that made it difficult for people in minority neighborhoods to get loans to buy homes. Researchers say the practice caused African-American and Latino households to fall behind in the accumulation of wealth, and the gap has persisted for generations.
That lack of wealth in African-American neighborhoods, Colby said, likely weakened the communal safety nets that could otherwise save people from homelessness. Relatives and neighbors may be stretched too thin to help someone in crisis with money, housing, or child care.
“Before we even had the language of homelessness, when people were in crisis, they turned to their family and their community and to their faith communities,” Colby said. “When those safety nets are tapped out, the crisis is intensified and we find ourselves on our own.”
Barriers to accessing health care, quality education, and well-paying jobs may also play a role, she said.
Understanding the causes driving a disproportionate number of African-Americans into homelessness is key to addressing the problem, Colby said.
Researchers from the Center for Social Innovation plan to analyze data on race and homelessness collected in Pierce County and Tacoma. They also plan to organize focus groups of homeless people and service providers and collect personal histories of homeless people.
Organizers of the study are hosting a December 5 discussion on race and homelessness from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Tacoma's Urban Grace Church.
A $30,000 contribution from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is covering most of Pierce County’s and Tacoma’s costs related to the study, Colby said.