Editor’s note: This is the fourth of five blog posts taking a deeper look at the racial disparities in our communities, from education to juvenile crime and homelessness. Read more.
Seattle is one of the whitest cities in the U.S., yet the color of the homeless is largely black.
African Americans make up a little more than 7 percent of Seattle’s population, not enough to add up to one person out of 10. But that demographic is tripled for the homeless population.
The numbers increase even more for families. About 60 percent of homeless families in shelters were listed as black or African American in the 2012 Seattle Annual Homeless Count. Homeless youth also are made up of more minorities than whites.
Local organizations and agencies have been stepping up to help but the overall numbers — and the disparities — are hard to shift.
For homeless families, with more mouths to feed and bodies to shelter, the stakes are high. Some may double up or couch surf, staying with friends or family members. Others will shell out limited cash to spend nights in motels. The last resort is the street.
“Panhandling with children is the quickest way to get them taken away from you,” said Liz McDaniel, the program director at Mary’s Place, a shelter for women and children in Seattle.
The problem is almost invisible but at Mary’s Place, it’s impossible to overlook. Mothers are breastfeeding in common areas. Children are playing with toys, drawing on scrap papers and eating corn dogs.
Black families occupy about half of the shelter and 18 percent are African immigrants. Though King County combines African immigrants and African Americans in the same demographic category, the two groups have different needs, said Rachel Berry, the family-services coordinator at Mary’s Place.
African Americans typically need general services related to housing and employment. African immigrants need those services in addition to English classes, help with identification documents and a social network.
For the refugees, “crisis hits and they don’t have someone who can help them,” Berry said.
Halima K. is an immigrant from Somalia and single mother of four. (She asked that her last name not be used because she didn’t want her name to be attached with the stigma of homelessness.) About two months ago, she was laid off from her housekeeping job at a nursing home and didn’t have a backup plan. With few local connections, Halima heard about Mary’s Place by word of mouth and ended up there.
The shelter coordinators provided Halima and her family with a safe place to eat and sleep and enrolled her in English classes. Now, she’s still looking for a new job, but says she doesn’t feel alone anymore.
Mary’s Place also has been providing overnight family emergency shelter since December 2012. The nonprofit provides enough clean cots for up to 48 moms and children. Yet nearly every day people are added to a wait list because they do not have enough space, McDaniel said.
Mary’s Place isn’t unique — most of the shelters in the area have waiting lists. For homeless youth, finding a shelter that is safe and focuses on their needs is especially difficult. The Seattle Human Services department funded 10 agencies and programs that provide shelter and transitional services to homeless young people in 2013.
Studies show that family conflict is the primary reason any youth is homeless, black or white. Racial disparities persist for homeless youth as well. Black youths make up 38 percent of the youth and young adult homeless population, the highest of any racial group, according to the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, a coalition of homeless advocates.
In November, the Seattle City Council and the Metropolitan King County Council gave more than $100,000 to sustain YouthCare’s young adult shelter when it was at risk of shutting. King County also has launched an initiative to end youth homelessness in the county by 2020, which includes a proposed $11 million in funding.
Bringing race into the conversation is the first step to addressing the issue, said Terry Pottmeyer, president of the Friends of Youth social-service organization.
“We’re getting braver about talking about the racial disparities,” Pottmeyer said. “That’s a start.”
Originally from the L.A. area, Marika Price is a graduating senior studying journalism at the University of Washington Department of Communication.