Homelessness is more than a poverty problem. It is also a color crisis.
According to the United Way of King County, blacks occupy nearly 30 percent of shelter beds but comprise about seven percent of King County’s general population.
Because homelessness is primarily an economic issue, it is no wonder that more than a third of African Americans are living in poverty and they make the lowest median household income.
The statistics are daunting. But, numbers only tell part of the story.
Meet Nick Maxwell. At 54, Maxwell spends most of his days selling Real Change newspapers, a street publication sold by many homeless vendors.
The 6-foot, 5-inch self-proclaimed “gentle giant” greets me with a warm smile and firm handshake. In person Maxwell exudes heartfelt commitment and infectious energy. But on paper Maxwell is nothing more than a black and Hispanic ex-felon.
Maxwell grew up in the Bronx before moving to Hollywood to pursue acting. With no steady income and no home, he roamed many urban areas and was sucked into a cycle of drug abuse that led him to jail.
Although Maxwell never blames his skin color for his situation, he acknowledges it has played a major role in his life.
“I’ve always been bothered by stereotypes that blacks are drug dealers, and it hurts because I lived up to it,” Maxwell says.
Once Maxwell was released from prison he viewed his race as another obstacle getting in the way of a better future. But now, five years clean, he views it as an opportunity.
“I want to open up people’s eyes and take the negatives and make them positive,” Maxwell says.
Racism isn’t always explicit, which makes it that much harder to tackle.
On the surface the cure for homelessness is more affordable housing and jobs. However, barriers like housing discrimination, less access to health care, over-representation in the criminal-justice system and higher unemployment rates make it more complex.
According to the Equity and Social Justice Initiative, young adult black men are disproportionately represented in King County’s criminal-justice system and are twice as likely to deal with unemployment compared with white men.
Flo Beaumon, the associate director of Catholic Community Services explains, “Seattle is a relatively progressive community, but there is still deep-seated and unconscious prejudice that contributes to homelessness.”
Many organizations are working to put an end to the racial disparity.
For example, the United Way of King County considers the racial makeup of the community when making grants to ensure they fund organizations that serve people of color. Local shelters including, Jubilee Women’s Center and Friends of Youth, emphasize cultural competency as an integral value during staff training and diversity workshops.
While shelters and government agencies can do their part to help, it is going to take more voices to advocate for equality to undo the racial divide.
Maxwell points at the skyscrapers and then to the hurried pedestrians and states plainly, “What we need is more people to care.”