Homelessness Among Black San Franciscans Should be Treated as a Racial Equity Issue

By Martine Khumalo

The intersection of Blackness and homelessness in San Francisco is a result of gaps in the system, and it is said you can’t beat the system. On any given night in America, there are over a half- million people who are homeless. Many suffer from chronic health conditions  and have  limited access to health care, or no access at all. This is an untenable situation, and it is not only a moral issue but also a public health crisis. Allowing so many people to remain unsheltered has always been a time bomb waiting to go off. And with recent flooding, the COVID-19 crisis and other social economic issues, it has.  

We still have yet to experience the full fallout. But this quickly evolving social crisis has clearly shown the vulnerabilities in the public and private health care system and how it affects people experiencing homelessness, particularly Black people.  

We cannot have a conversation about this crisis without addressing race. We know that Black people are disproportionately impacted by homelessness. In San Francisco, for example, a huge number of people are experiencing homelessness. The most recent point-in-time homeless count shows 38% of the unhoused population are Black, even though Black people represent just 6% of the general population. 

Data from the Office of Minority Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show Black people suffering disproportionately from underlying medical conditions that put them at a higher risk for contracting other diseases, such as diabetes, asthma, and high blood pressure. When you compound the medical vulnerabilities that disproportionately affect Black people with their overrepresentation in the homeless population, you have a situation that is not only alarming but catastrophic. 

Given this, it comes as no surprise that Black and brown people are bearing the brunt of the homelessness pandemic. 

Speaking from firsthand experience, we should drill down on how race plays into homelessness and to make recommendations on how to eliminate the disparities. For instance, Black people with lived experience of homelessness should be included in some outreach teams and service delivery in some—if not all—shelters for homeless people. I believe this will help shape the message out on the streets in meeting the needs of vulnerable people. We should also train more service providers in trauma-informed care, to start their work with an understanding of how institutional racism affects homelessness. Providers should also recognize the trauma of Black people’s experiences, including trauma associated with the health care system, and they should recognize that other factors like COVID-19, floods and other emergencies only exacerbate the situation. Providers should meet Black people who are experiencing homelessness with empathy and understanding by working to see this crisis through a lens of racial equity. 

Crises like police brutality against homeless people are unacceptable. Will we let racial disparities again harm Black and brown people disproportionately? Will we start to track racial data so that communities of color are not overlooked? And will we make COVID testing widespread, especially for those experiencing homelessness? The answer lies in our commitment to using a racial equity lens when dealing with this public health emergency. 

In different locations in San Francisco, and across the country, I have heard of creative partnerships between public, private and social service agencies forming to bring immediate relief, though l personally have not seen one yet.  This is promising, systemic change needs to utilize a racial lens if it is to be truly effective. 

My hope is that after a while in consideration of my opinions in this article together with other suggestions, the efforts to address homelessness through a racial equity lens will be stepped up. We must use our experience of crisis to dismantle racist structures and systems and put in place the investments and attention that communities of color need to thrive. This can be achieved only if we work towards one primary goal: to defeat racism.