Race, Gender and Homelessness
April 18, 2018
As the Trump Administration rolls back Obama era protections against housing discrimination and proposes cuts in funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) by 18.3 percent as well as elimination of community development block grant programs entirely, Congress pushes back with historically high HUD funding levels in its latest budget deal.
Against this backdrop, the Gender Policy Report talked with Heading Home Hennepin‘s Lisa Thornquist and Humphrey School Faculty member Maria Hanratty about the face of homelessness and how federal housing and safety net policy intersects with their work at the local level to end homelessness.
Lisa Thornquist (Lisa): We actually have about the same number of adult men and women who are homeless. The men tend to be without their children. They tend to be parents, but they are not with their children when they enter a shelter. The women tend to have their children with them. And so you’ll find the women in the family shelter and the men in the single shelter. The woman actually–I think for women, the disadvantage is much more about the economy because they are trying to hold a job, pay for childcare, find an apartment that is large enough to manage themselves and their kids, and finding a hard time making that happen. And they have a harder time doubling up with other people because they are bringing along their children. I think with men, they have an easier time if they don’t have children with them, to stay doubled up on someone’s couch. To live with a sister or a cousin or somehow get by. And so the ones that end up in shelter are typically just having a harder time in life. So when you find the concentration of chemical use and mental illness, you’ll see that among the men in shelter because they have kind of made everyone around them mad and they don’t have friends and family to stay with anymore. Whereas women don’t often have the same disabling conditions, they just have a hard time finding a place to double up with their children. And so they end up coming to shelter, I think sooner than men do. When we’ve looked at the Wilder statistics, almost half of women in shelter have an eviction on their record. Only about 22 percent of men have an eviction on their record. I think it’s become women have tried much harder to get into the housing market and have had some difficulties there. Whereas men, I think, are less likely to even have been in the housing market.
Maria Hanratty (Maria): With intersectionality around the housing market, we have done some research over the recession looking at families that were most affected by the recession in terms of entering shelter. This research found that even controlling for family demographics, earnings, neighborhood, if you were a low-income black family you were twice as likely to enter shelter as if you were non-black. And over the recession we looked at which groups had the largest increases in the probability of entering shelter and again that was much more highly correlated with your race. So, what we’re saying is when a bad housing shock or income shock hits community this population is the one that is going to be hurt the most. The other thing we found is where people live is correlated with who becomes homeless and enters shelter. So, if you took a map of where all the foreclosures were in Minneapolis over the recession and overlaid it with the prior addresses of people who live in or entered shelter over the recession, you would find they are coming from about the same neighborhoods. So, what that suggests to me is this deterioration in housing stock had a large effect on the African American community because it dried up the available housing and also made them compete for a smaller and smaller share of available rental units.
Lisa: I think that evictions really are one of the stepping stones–one of the precursors to homelessness and we haven’t quite done the research to connect the two and figure out what the path is between eviction and homelessness. Certainly not everyone who is evicted ends up in a shelter and not everyone in a shelter has been evicted. But there probably is a relationship there. And, we’re hoping that Maria’s students can help us uncover that relationship over this next semester. But, it’s really clear that if the housing market is what’s driving people to homelessness, then eviction is the first step in that housing market failing for people. There was–after the book Evicted came out, the city of Minneapolis did a pretty in depth study of evictions in the city of Minneapolis and they found that, just doing the math, about half of North Minneapolis residents are likely evicted within a three year period. We certainly know from our research prior to that most of the people entering our family shelter are coming from North Minneapolis. That’s where the foreclosures happened. That’s where we have a lot of apartments that are very low income, not in great shape, but affordable to some extent. But not affordable enough for all of these families that need to live there. For a family that may be getting by and working, and then something happens in the family–a break-up of the couple–suddenly the mom is finding herself having to apply for welfare. Well, the welfare benefit that is in no way going to cover that rent and she could very well be evicted within a month or two. And in fact, most of our programs aren’t really able to help her in that situation until she gets evicted and she goes to shelter. And so it’s certainly logical that it’s a precursor to shelter entry, we just need to document the path that people go through to get there.
I spent last summer, quite a bit of time last summer, sitting at housing court just to watch the proceedings and to get a sense of who was going through and how they’re going to through the system. In fact, we did an intercept system of about 67 households that had gone through the system. The majority were families. The majority were people of color, disproportionately African American and Native American. And, I would see them struggle with the whole process where they were behind now $1,500–$2,000–in rent and that was impossible for them to come up with. And so I just feel like they are in a very difficult situation. They looked like deer in a headlight. They came into court and the judge would be talking about the plaintiff and the defendant. I think they had no idea they were defendant. In fact, I think they didn’t even quite think of themselves as tenants, they thought of themselves as renters. And all this language of the court didn’t make a lot of sense to them. They were told to work it out with their landlord, which, they’ve got no negotiating power. They’ve got no money. What they’re basically working out is either, for him, I’m going to move out by next Friday. Or I agree by next Friday, I’m going to find someone to give me the $1,500 that I’m behind. And in half of those cases, where they negotiated a price, they weren’t able to come up with the money and they still got evicted. I feel like when families are going through that, they’re wrestling with, ‘I had to take time off work to be at court. I had to do something with kids for daycare. I’ve got so many bills to pay. And now I’m facing–not only I’m behind in rent, but I have to pay the filing fee that my landlord put forth to get me in court?’ And they are so far behind in court that it’s impossible to dig themselves out of that.
You can walk into the court and know who are the defendants and who are the landlords and even–I think very highly of the lawyers that are there to help, and the mediators that are there to help, but they are overwhelmingly white. And the people they are trying to help are overwhelmingly not white. And I can see that there would be trust issues. I really think highly of their work, but I can also understand why people don’t necessarily want to talk to anybody in that case. People are often embarrassed that they got behind on their rent. And that happens to everyone, but I think low income people of color have fewer resources to borrow money from, are less trusting of the system, and end up just, in the end, being the ones to lose their apartments.
Our test in North Minneapolis right now, just got started a few weeks ago, so it’s very early in the process. But, it’s based at North Point and all the staff at North Point that are working with these families are people of color. And I think that is the first trust area that we’re getting through. People come to North Point because they trust the staff there and they trust the services there. Many are coming for the food shelf and that’s the first place where we talk to people and find out whether they’re having housing issues. So, I think that will help us break through that trust issue to start with. We intend, this summer, to interview many of the families who have gone through our pilot so far to find out what services they took advantage of, and one of the things we’re really going to test is ‘you got a case manager, you got some case assistance, did you use the mediators and legal aid and why or why not?’ And, I hope we can probe for some of those trust issues around that.
I think federal policy drives so much of what we are experiencing right now with homelessness and has for the last 30 years, for an entire generation. Really during the 1980’s, HUD and the federal government withdrew from the housing market. And when they did that they really undercut so many subsidized housing units that was really helping the poorest people in our community. At the same time that that happened they also had de-institutionalization of people living in congregative settings that put more pressure on the housing market and put people out into the housing market that didn’t have a very good ability to earn an income. Federal benefits for welfare have been stuck since 1986. A family on welfare, now TANF, makes the same amount of money that they did 30 years ago and 30 years ago it barely paid rent and now it doesn’t even pay for half of rent. At the same time, benefits for people who are disabled and unable to work have really stagnated. Right now if you jump through all the hoops and get on SSI, which is sort of the golden benefit for people with disabilities you only get $750 per month to pay for rent. In Minneapolis when you look at just an efficiency apartment the average price is $927. You can’t even afford to live in an efficiency. TANF not going up in 30 years, a family of three on TANF gets $532 in Hennepin County to live on and yet the rent for a two bedroom apartment is almost $1700. So between disability benefits, welfare benefits, the housing market, you can’t win either way. You are losing on the housing side and you are losing on the income side. At the same time there is a lot of research out there that shows that wages have really stagnated since the 1970’s. If you take out inflation, they haven’t really gone up. And yet, the housing market has probably doubled in price. So it isn’t just the disabled or the people on welfare, virtually everybody is struggling who doesn’t have a high income job.
I think that many solutions to homelessness and eviction, they are local. I think each community is different in terms of the market and the culture and how people trust government or don’t. I think what we need to do, and what we have been doing at the local level is figuring out how to leverage federal resources and federal advice to work for us. And, so for instance, our pilot in North Minneapolis is funded in part by TANF block grant money that comes from the feds to the state, but the state gives the county some flexibility in how they decide to spend the TANF grant money. We’re attempting to spend some of it in this more flexible way. So, I think there are resources at the federal level, that we can–if we’re thinking more creatively, and we have the ability to be creative with the resources, I think we can tailor it our community.
Maria: Federal, the other options for federal flexibility–which I don’t know whether Lisa’s office has looked at–they allow waivers under the Medicaid program to use housing as part of a treatment for people with high needs. And so, there are some states that have adopted that waiver recently and I think that’s a great option to get more resources into the community to address housing needs. What’s really exciting now is that city council has changed composition recently and they’re much more excited about the idea of taking on the issue of how do we change regulations in the housing market to make it slightly more fair to renters.
Lisa: The city council last year actually allowed for intentional living communities to occur in Minneapolis. I believe that there is an ordinance that say no more than three unrelated people in a housing unit. So they’ve now allowed larger groups to live together, which is one way that you can actually help reduce the cost of living, especially do you want to have ten single people live in a five bedroom apartment, that would actually make it really affordable. So, I believe they already did the intentional living community last year, but they’re also looking at changing the ordinance to just get rid of the only three unrelated people in a household without having to deem yourself an intentional living community. Just to respond to the fact that people are doubled up. Let’s just admit it up and let people be on the lease and rent legally, rather than having people kind of sneak in the back door as a way to make housing affordable.
Maria: I think the national trends are really interesting if you look at what is happening with homelessness across the country. There have been relatively broad scale declines but I think as you alluded to most of those were in smaller communities and if you look at metropolitan areas there have actually been increases recently that seem to coincide with increases in rental costs. So, I think what we’re seeing is that homelessness, not surprisingly, is related to what is going on in the housing market. I think we can learn an awful lot by looking at trends. One thing we can learn is that housing markets matter. You can see that for the recent trends that show there have been increases in homelessness in metro areas as rental prices have increased but you can also see it locally where we see particularly in this community over the recession as unemployment rates have gone up and incomes have gone down there has been increased homelessness and since then it has gone down. Finally I think there is some interesting national research and local actually that shows that policy does matter. So, where we’ve seen the largest declines in homelessness have been in the veteran population and some declines in the chronically homeless population and those are the groups that we have invested the most in housing and supportive services to reduce homelessness.