Sharon H. Chang

What It’s Like To Be Black And Homeless In Seattle

Greedy D is 30 years old, black, and homeless. When he was younger, he always went to school and then after he graduated always held a job. He has a culinary arts degree and went through the Job Corps. But a car accident, debt, bad luck, and a poor support system set him on a different path.

Racism has played a central role in leading him to where he is today and now also stands in the way of him obtaining a better life. Greedy knows people negatively stereotype him because he’s black. “I’m an African American, I’m scruffy,” he said. “I have a lot of stereotypes [like] he only listens to rap music, he might be mean to me, he might yell or talk with a loud tone.” He knows that in this country, black men have to work harder. “If you know that you have people against you, or you know about racism, you know about what this country’s history is,” he pointed out. “You have to over-perform at your best.”

Seattle's Tent City 3

Seattle’s Tent City 3

CREDIT: Sharon H. Chang

Seattle’s homeless population has ballooned in recent years. It’s the 23rd largest city in the U.S. but currently has the fourth largest homeless population, beat out only by New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. Washington State overall had one of the biggest increases nationally in its homeless population between 2013 and 2014 while 31 other states have seen a decline.

And it would appear Seattle’s numbers are only increasing. This year’s annual one-night count of King County’s homeless found a whopping 21 percent increase in homelessness over the prior year, and even that is an undercount.

Racial disparities underpin the city’s growing problem with homelessness. Its general population is over 60 percent white, but the homeless population is over 60 percent people of color. Though blacks make up only around 7 percent of Seattle’s population, they are vastly overrepresented among Seattle’s most marginalized and oppressed groups. In 2010, 15.7 percent of those unemployed in Seattle and 35 percent of those living in poverty were black. In 2013, Seattle’s general median household income climbed to a record high while black household income plummeted 13.5 percent.

Michael Volz, a caseworker who served the homeless for over six years through the King County Jail and later Veterans Affairs , confirmed people of color are disproportionately homeless in Seattle. The city is “tremendously racist,” he said frankly. “Racist in our hiring practices; racist in the way people are treated when they try to receive services.”

Volz said Seattle’s growing homeless population can be attributed in large part to government social service budget cuts over the last 20 years. But he also attributes the spike to discriminatory police practices. From 1980-2011, Seattle’s prison population grew from 315,974 to 1,537,415, and at last count the King County Department of Adult & Juvenile Detention showed 35.7 percent of those in secure confinement were black.

“I see homeless people being targeted and criminalized by the legal system at such a high rate,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Seattle has such a horrible time with the police force and then in addition to that [has] this ballooning homeless population.” For instance, nearly half of Seattle’s marijuana citations go to homeless people. And it was the shooting of unarmed homeless Native American John T. Williams in 2010 that led the Seattle Police Department to fall under federal investigation for excessive use of force.

In Seattle, Greedy D said, racism is particularly common with cops. He recounted being arrested for criminal trespassing for no reason, being loudly told he was resisting despite being pinned with his arm twisted behind his back, and then being surrounded by nine cop cars. “That’s what happens with cops and black dudes. All eyes are always on you,” he explained. “They expect you to be crazy. Overreact.” He protested, “I don’t sell drugs. I’m not the bad guy.”

Many advocates feel bringing race into the conversation is necessary to address homelessness. Racism means that poverty not only hits people of color harder but that it’s also harder for those people of color to improve their circumstances because they are constantly discriminated against.

Consider Willie, a 40-year-old homeless man who identifies as mixed race. He thinks racism is worse in Seattle than in Northern California from where he came. His paternal heritage is Mexican, white, Indian, and black and maternal heritage is African, Indian, and white. Yet he feels like his dark skin means everyone just treats him as African American. And once they see him as black, he said, they want to know, “What’s my angle? What do I want?”

One of the worst forms of bias he faces is employment discrimination. Willie has a resume that impresses employers. He graduated from college and holds an Associate’s degree and various certificates. “But when [employers] actually see me, everything seems to change,” he said. “I’m going to get a 16 dollar an hour job, but I’m offered an 8 or 9 dollar an hour job.” Even if Willie agrees to the lower-paid position, when he calls back a week later to inquire about the job, he’s told it has been filled. “With someone with less experience or little to no experience,” he added. “I have to do more to convince people.”

Anthony, a 33 year-old Native American and Hispanic man who is homeless in Seattle, has been sober for over five years and currently lives in Tent City 3. He said regardless of the fact that he has some money in his pocket and wears normal clothes or is even sometimes nicely dressed, he is still followed when he goes into stores. Because of his race, employees and owners think he’s going to steal. “I’m like, ‘What?’ I ain’t gonna steal – I got money right here,” he said. “I mean it’s just how they stereotype [me] and it just pisses me off.” Anthony, who hails from Wyoming, also thinks racism is worse in Seattle. “Now when I go into stores,” he explained, “I just have to…get what I need. Get right out.”

Joaquin Uy, communications specialist and co-chair of the anti-oppression work group at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, said Seattle has a hard time talking about race. Uy is also part of the Racial Equity Team, a group of lobbyists and community organizers who get together to look at pending legislation. He pointed out that even on this team, “All of a sudden when it comes to homelessness, there are people who are like, ‘Is there a racial equity component to this? I don’t get it. It’s just homelessness.’” Uy observed that people often think homelessness is just a class issue. “It then becomes this meritocratic capitalistic discussion about, ‘You’re not worth it. You’re not trying hard enough.’”

Joaquin Uy also stressed that racist institutions have disadvantaged people of color throughout history. “When Washington as a territory was first started, there were actually provisions written into the charter that forbade Chinese people from owning property,” he noted. As the territory became a state and cities were formed, racial housing covenants were then written into nicer neighborhoods around Seattle, where owners were forbidden from selling to anyone of Malay, Negro, Mongoloid, or Jewish ancestry. It was only about 50 years ago that the state failed to pass its own Fair Housing Law.

In 2005, Seattle and King County introduced a 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. The plan was crafted by a coalition of local organizations. It proposed principal actions to prevent homelessness, move homeless people quickly into housing, and sustain progress over time. The plan touted itself as an “unprecedented coordinated approach to planning, funding, and delivering housing and services to people who experience homeless throughout King County.”

But both Uy and Volz criticized the plan as unrealistic and failing to address the systemic issues necessary to truly end homelessness. “I don’t see how the city can possibly have a 10-year plan to end homelessness without addressing the disproportionate poverty, the discriminatory housing practices, the gatekeeping that happens in the city for services,” Volz said. “There’s so many more systemic issues going on that if you don’t address those, what are we doing? It’s like if you have a broken bone, I’m not going to talk about the scrape on the skin.”

They both conceded that it’s difficult for advocates and case workers to add race conversations or extra training to their already enormous workloads and long, underpaid hours. But, Uy said, “It doesn’t have to be a discussion about adding more hours, it’s more of a discussion of working the hours you’re already doing but making sure that race is a part of that.” He added, “When you create a culture which can talk about race frankly and not be afraid to talk about race and race discussions are just part of the culture of the organization, then it bleeds into all of the other aspects of your job.”

One of Volz’s job duties is to perform intake when assessing homeless people for services. One of the mandatory questions he feels bad about having to ask in such a sterile way is, “Have you had any legal involvement?” He said the response by homeless people of color is often strong and incensed, “I’m a black man. Of course. Of course I’ve been arrested. I’m homeless…I’m harassed by the police. I’m arrested constantly. It’s a huge barrier.”

Volz said he absolutely agrees. “They’re right. It’s a huge barrier.”

Sharon H. Chang is an author, scholar, sociologist and activist. She writes primarily on racism and social justice with a feminist lens. Her pieces have been featured in Racism Review, The Seattle Gloablist, Hyphen Magazine, ParentMap Magazine, AAPI Voices and on her own blog, Multiracial Asian Families.

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