The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated 582,000 Americans experienced homelessness in 2022. The increase in the number of people without a place to live is a result of outrageous housing costs and steadily rising prices for essentials like food and transportation. Sadly, the rising face of homelessness is Black women.
The over-representation of Black women in the homeless population is not by accident. Women — already the most vulnerable to job loss, the most likely to be single heads of households, the ones who are most often the sole providers for their children — are also the most likely to be evicted. Even before the pandemic hit in 2020, Black women faced evictions at twice the rate of white people in at least 17 states, according to a study by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Homelessness experienced by women is made unique by their disproportionate experiences of gender-based violence including domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, human trafficking, and sexual assault.
I moved to Los Angeles in 2017, and the first time I saw Skid Row for myself I was speechless. Skid Row makes up about 50 blocks in downtown L.A., where nearly 3,000 people live in tents, shanties, and vehicles that trail on the sidewalks and streets. It’s sad and shocking to see it, including the number of Black women. You’ll never see a sight like this in the movies; only the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.
Los Angeles’ new mayor, Karen Bass, spent most of her campaign last year focused on the homeless epidemic and declared a state of emergency on her first day in office. It basically gives her office expanded powers to accelerate the construction of affordable housing and cuts through all the rules and regulations that might hinder the process. Meanwhile, more people continue to fall into homelessness faster than housing can be put up, faster than these programs can help people that are already on the streets.
Sixty-eight percent of Black women are the sole breadwinners of their household. This fact is tremendously significant to understand why so many Black women are homeless. With the pandemic came financial challenges that have posed a substantial threat to their ability to remain housed and support their families. Black women are also the primary caregivers for aging parents and family members. Those obligations, coupled with the greatest income and wealth disparities between them and other demographic groups, have made Black women especially vulnerable to eviction.
We have to acknowledge that structural racism and systemic barriers such as unequal pay and discriminatory practices that disproportionately affect Black women and greatly contribute to high-cost burdens with housing. Women are more responsible for taking care of children and the elderly so they have less time to commute, which means they have less time at work. They are not making as much money as they could be.
The truth is, welfare to reform/welfare to work doesn’t really provide support and resources if you’re working. There are women struggling; they can’t get any public assistance; they can’t get Medicaid; they can’t get enough food stamps. But they absolutely need the help.
To be a Black woman is one layer of invisibility. But to be a Black woman and homeless is on another level. As a woman, I know how important it is to just claim space for femininity, and that has to be nearly impossible when homeless. Women remain mothers, wives, nurturers, and students. None of those roles are lost just because they are without a home. Your identity is non-negotiable.
Homelessness seems to erase the past and blurs the present. Black women are filtered with race, gender, sexuality, and economics. Navigating these things and more that have been assigned to Black womanhood, while struggling for stability, is an almost impossible balancing act. Issues of mental health, poverty, and domestic violence are not exclusive to Black women. However, Black women experience the impact of these conditions with a different intensity.
The trope of the angry, hyper-sexualized, or lazy Black woman melt into the reality of homelessness. We know that homelessness is a human condition, yet Black women are too easily compartmentalized and marginalized. Our society is selective on who is worthy enough to receive sympathy and assistance: Black or white, sober or addicted, mother or father, married or single. We choose according to personal politics who is worthy of stability, who doesn’t deserve support, and when it is acceptable for someone to be without shelter.
This time of year, I think about students returning to college campuses, along with the reminder that many Black women on campus are homeless. Many are sacrificing food and shelter to achieve a college degree. How do we reconcile the value of an education with women living in their cars?
What are viable solutions to homelessness? For one, building more housing in cities. In a lot of major cities, women tend to rely more on public transportation. So, the closer they can live to childcare and work, the more they are able to do. Also, there needs to be more of an investment in supportive services that actually work and not hinder. Sometimes, women need longer-term rental assistance and services that support their stability. Lastly, programs need to be put into place to increase women’s incomes. It is crucial to maintaining housing they may already have in place.
There has been a lot of conversation and debate about what protection of Black women looks like. What does it mean to truly protect us? Mostly, the conversation goes a couple of ways: People ask how they can protect us, only to dismiss what we’re asking for. Some are willing to listen, but only if they can argue their personal examples of how to protect us. The rest? Well, they remain silent. There lies the problem.
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Archuleta is an author, poet, blogger, and host of the FearlessINK podcast. Archuleta's work centers Black women, mental health and wellness, and inspiring people to live their fullest potential.