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A Peculiar Institution: The Race and Gender Politics of Homelessness

An unidentified homeless mother with her child
An unidentified homeless mother with her child

Sister Outsider: Learning to Live Without A Home

I have lived simultaneously in the palms of grace and on the tongue of hell.

While attending law school, I was homeless.

Not on a couch, between apartments homeless. I was human waste on the toilet seat, bed-bug infested, norvo virus, piss-smelling, veteran's shelter homeless. The woman three bunks down from me scratched incesstantly, she was ravaged with scabies, small treacherous insects burrowed beneath her paper thin skin. Her nails left bloody trails along her arms and legs.

I existed in an whispered purgatory. The sort of instability causing strangers to glance quickly away and in a moment decide - without ever having spoken to me - who I was. To some I must have deserved this, they speculated on a possible drug addiction or perhaps I was a prostitute.

To be poor, black and a woman with no home is an equation for fracturing invisibility. We are a minority/majority. We are the mice continuously roaring.

The disparities between ethnicity in the U.S. population and the homeless population are striking. In 2007, the homeless population was 47% African-American, though African-American people made up only 12% of the U.S. adult population. The homeless population was only 35% white, though white people made up about 76% of the U.S. population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003; U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2007)

My existence, the possibilities to my reality were too close to home for many and I unceremoniously became an aberration for the comfort of those who dared to look - black or white. Sometimes, I looked away - other times I didn't. I met the stare, the wonder - the questions, with my own softened gaze

My truth was not extraordinarily unique - there was no Dickinson twist to my circumstance. I was a second year law student who failed to secure student loan money to cover my housing expenses. The year before my home had been destroyed in a fire. I was constantly navigating societal potholes. I studied where I could. In Starbucks with a cold coffee - on a bench in the Boston Common, bundled against the bone marrow chill of a merciless winter in New England.

The shelter was a microcosm of society, it had a rules. It was a living thing ANDit's heart centered on strict adherence to unflinching and unwavering rules; out by 7:30 am and back by 4:30 p.m. I filled my days with the study of law. I was after all, a full-time law student. I lived beneath this rule and many others. No more than one personal picture on the night stand I shared with another woman. No more than three pairs of shoes beneath my bunk. No personal blankets on my bed, except on the weekends. Lights out at 9 pm and no sleeping in the television room. To my left slept a transgender woman who forged a bit of privacy for herself by hanging sheets around her bunk at night. In the evening I would listen to the soft sound of her breathing, it was a bastard lullaby; her snore betraying her femininity in it's masculinity.

Inside Out: Preserving Femininity as a Homeless Woman

The number one rule of living of any shelter. Do not to get too comfortable. The reminder was always, "You are homeless." This was echoed in the blandness of the barely edible food, the light that glowed dull yellow throughout the night, the random Breathalyzer tests and the stale doughnuts donated from the coffee shop at the closing of their business at night. We were nowhere - it existed within us. I slept with the covers pulled tightly over my head - insulating myself from the sounds of women vomiting in their purses, speaking to loved ones in their sleep - protesting their purgatory from the fringes of consciousness.

Women cling to themselves when displaced. There is a need to carve feminine from rock. We remain mothers, wives, lovers, nurturers - this is not lost in the fray and chaos that marks being without a home. Identity is often non negotiable. The self does not cease with homelessness, cultural ties do not dissipate. These remain - even as the table cloth is pulled from beneath the table setting, there remains the plates, the forks, the coffee cups, this metaphor is applicable to homelessness. As the ground beneath a woman's feet slips, she remains woefully whole, womaness is not comprised at the altar of instability.

I never missed a lecture when I was homeless. I would sneak on the commuter rail to make it to class. My colleagues had no idea that I belonged nowhere - that I slept in a room with 20 other women in a building with 300 homeless veterans who were male. In addition to being a minority as a woman in a homeless shelter, I was also only one of three black women in the shelter.

We were flies in the sour buttermilk.

However, we were not reflective of a national pandemic/reality disturbingly impacting African-American families at a greater rate. The Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness reports in a study, Intergenerational Disparities Experienced by Homeless Black Families, "The stark reality is that black Americans are greatly over-represented in U.S. homelessness and poverty statistics when compared to whites. In 2010, one out of every 141 black family members stayed in a homeless shelter, a rate seven times higher when compared with persons in white families (one in 990)

Due to interrelated barriers to economic self-sufficiency and prosperity, such as institutionalized discrimination and multi-generational poverty," ICPH reported. "Black families have unequal access to decent housing, employment, and education. These social exclusions leave blacks more likely to have smaller financial reserves to fall back on in emergency situations; reside in poor, segregated, and unsafe neighborhoods that lack community resources; and experience homelessness at much higher rates...Understanding why blacks are over-represented in homelessness shelters requires an examination of the longstanding and interrelated social and structural issues facing the black community."

Landing into homeless seemed to have been my inheritance - at least according to the statistics and academic studies.

The National Coalition for Homelessness reports homelessness and blackness have not always been so intimately interconnected, "Homelessness emerged as a national issue in the1870’s (Kusmer, 2002).

At that time in American history, African-Americans made up less than 10% of the population and although there were no national figures documenting the demography of the homeless population, " NCH further reports," Some sources suggest that African-Americans represented a very small segment of the homeless population. As a matter of fact, in the 1950s and 1960s, the typical person experiencing homelessness was white, male, and in his 50s (Kusmer, 2002)."

As a black woman in a veteran's shelter, I was small in a sea of hopelessness. I was assigned a case manager who regarded me as a chore, understanding the interrelated social and structural issues of my situation was too tedious to undertake. It was easier to compartmentalize me.

My goals to become a lawyer seemed far fetched to my case manager.I explained it was all I had left. I worked part-time at a doughnut shop and my daughter, was also struggling with homelessness ( she had found temporary refuge with random friends) My case manager, neatly starched, with her hair fading blonde swept away from her face suffered an odd cognitive dissonance. I was a truth she refused to accept and therefore she advised me to conform to what she could accept.She ran her hands, trembling and pale against her stiff black dress and smirked, " You are on academic probation," she reminded me of why I had not received my student loan money. "There is no certainty you will get off." This neat and seemingly obsessively organized woman met me squarely in the eye. Daring me to hope - to defy her logic.

Already I was defying logic - I was a law student, a published author, a single mother working at a doughnut shop and I was without a bed of my own, a tub to wash in. At night I would lay awake and watch a mouse climb into bunk mate's dresser - leaving a trail of turds like breadcrumbs. I was in constant defiance of logic with every inhale and exhale. Gathering strength from the tips of my toes, I told this nameless women that if I had to, I would study from a park bench in a blizzard.

Necessities and the Non-Negotiable Self

My steps towards progress were carefully measured and I counted days on fingers and toes. This is how i kept my sanity in check. I prayed in the midst of women fighting over cell-phone chargers and whose turn was it to clean vomit from the floors. Who would sweet-talk the case manager for extra laundry tokens or sweet talk the cook into serving an alternative to meatloaf ? I was a vegetarian in a homeless shelter. This was a non-negotiable aspect of my identity. I would not choose identity over homelessness. I negotiated both on a slippery tightrope of give and take. Dignity was not on the menu and I did not serve it at the altar of my needs.

I was clean, but I was hungry - always. It was a gnawing, desperate hunger that snaked it's way from the basin of my belly to the tips of my fingers. It curled beneath my heart and spread it legs beneath my lungs. It was a hunger tempered by pride. It had the decency to remain asleep in the presence of others - my belly never grumbled nor did my hunger kick at my insides as infant impatient to be born.

Homelessness erases the past and blurs the present. It is an odd paradigm of instability in which a person is collectively viewed through a singular lens. Through this lens consider the political filters of race, gender, sexuality and economics.Navigating the archetypes assigned to black womanhood and struggling for stability is a treacherous balancing act. It rivals the acrobatic feats of a Cirque de Soleil performer or the perhaps, the masquerades parading as realities performed by the late magician, Houdini.

The Archetype of the angry, hyper-sexualized, or lazy black women collide into the reality of homelessness. I was none of these things and the efforts to prove myself - my realness wore at my resolve. Homelessness is a human condition. Yet, the homeless are too easily compartmentalized and marginalized. We make a choice on who shall receive sympathy - black or white, sober or addicted, mother or father - married or divorced? We choose according to personal politic who is worthy of stability and we also choose who has lost favor - we deign it is acceptable to be without shelter.

Society collectively pushes those without a home to the fringes of socialization. To secure a job one needs an address and bank account - to secure a bank account, one needs an address. Most shelters have a check in time before 6pm in order to secure a bed. All of these factors defy what it requires to become stable. I struggled within this system and managed to carve an existence

Homelessness has a complicated, yet decipherable politic and the sympathies accompanying are shifting in scope. According to a report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, families with children now comprise 41% of the homeless population but 42% of the population is African American. The composition of the average homeless family is a single parent household headed by an African-American female (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2004).

Demographics and Trends of Homelessness (Data Collected from the National Coalition for Homelessness)

  • People of color – particularly African-Americans – are a minority that is particularly over-represented. According the PBS Homeless Fact and Figures ’07, 41% are non-Hispanic whites (compared to 76% of the general population), 40% are African Americans (compared to 11% of the general population) 11% are Hispanic (compared to 9% of the general population) and 8% percent are Native American (compared to 1% of the general population).
  • Like the total U.S. population, though, the ethnic makeup of homeless populations varies according to geographic location. For example,people experiencing homelessness in rural areas are more likely to be white, female, married, currently working, homeless for the first time, and homeless for a shorter period of time (Fisher, 2005); homelessness among Native Americans and migrant workers is also largely a rural phenomenon.
  • Many other urban communities cite similar or higher numbers. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless reports that 77% of its total homeless population is African-American.
  • The disparities between ethnicities in the U.S. population and the homeless population are striking. In 2007, the homeless population was 47% African-American, though African-American people made up only 12% U.S. adult population. The homeless population was only 35% white, though white people made up about 76% of the U.S. population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003; U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2007).
  • Veterans make up approximately one-third of the male homeless population. Among this population about 46% are white, 56% are African-American or Latino (Department of Veteran Affairs, 2005).
  • The sexual orientation of homeless persons is not often measured, but the National Network of Runaway and Youth Services estimates that about 6% of homeless adolescents are gay or lesbian. Studies assessing sexual orientations of homeless adolescents have revealed rates ranging from 11% to 35% (American Journal of Public Health, 2002). These youths face considerable risk of violence and abuse while homeless.

In Defiance of Instability

I raged against my purgatory. I raged against the ground slipping beneath my feet. I insisted on carving a space - in this rage, I was well aware there is a bastardized luxury. I insisted on four walls and a door to close behind me. There is no quick fix for homelessness. Raging is not a panacea, it is an emotional response. The issues plaguing communities of color must be met with more than rages and empty dialogue. They insist on sustainable solutions that put power in the hands of those most vulnerable. In some manner women who have traditionally been disempowered must be brought in from the fringes.

The issues particularized to black women insist truth be clearly communicated to power. Issues of mental health, poverty, domestic violence and poverty are not exclusive to black women, however women of color experience the impact of these conditions with a greater intensity and severity. Homelessness is a challenge to humanity, it causes one to re-conceptualize identity and the impact of homelessness as to how one self-actualizes themselves as a contributing and purposeful member of society.

It is the collective responsibility of society to respond to the call of it is members - the homeless have not lost citizenship because they are marginalized. They, though we may quickly glance away - the homeless are ever present. Their lives insist on recognition - to continue to look away in the face of disparity is to loose grasp of our own humanity; it is akin to becoming homeless within our own bodies by losing our spirits in blissful, purposeful ignorance.



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