Among all young people facing homelessness in the United States, young people of color are particularly at risk. Chapin Hall of the University of Chicago estimates that for Black and African American youth, the risk of homelessness is 83% higher and for nonwhite Hispanic or Latinx youth, it is 33% higher than it is for their white peers.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in their 2019 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report, shows people of color experience homelessness at rates disproportionate to their share of the American demographic pie. According to HUD, Black and African American people comprise 40% of all people facing homelessness, though they are only 13% of the U.S. population. Hispanic and Latinx people make up 22% of the homeless population and 18.5% of the overall U.S. population. And Native American people face homelessness at about three times their population share of 1.3%.
Among young people facing homelessness, the statistics stretch even further. The Bassuk Center, through its Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities (SPARC) program, studied youth homelessness in six U.S. communities (Atlanta, GA; Columbus, OH; Dallas, TX; San Francisco, CA; Syracuse, NY; and Pierce County, WA) and found that Black youth were the most overrepresented group among all young people facing homelessness ages 18-24. Black youth accounted for 78% of this population, and all young people of color accounted for nearly 90%.
These statistics mirror in large part the young people who find shelter and safety at Covenant House in the United States, where 62%—nearly two-thirds—of the young people in our care are Black or African American. They, along with Hispanic or Latinx youth (18%), Native American/Alaska Native youth (6%) and other youth (5%), comprise 91% of all the young people in our houses from New York to Anchorage. Our white youth represent 9% of the total.
“People of color are dramatically more likely than white people to experience homelessness in the United States. This is no accident; it is the result of centuries of structural racism that have excluded historically oppressed people—particularly Black and Native Americans—from equal housing, community supports, and opportunities for economic mobility,” affirms the SPARC program report.
“We see so many Black children and youth at Covenant House who have lived in the ugly shadow of racism,” Covenant House President Kevin Ryan writes. “They deserve unconditional love and absolute respect but, instead, have faced discrimination and rejection. We see the scars of racism and prejudice against Black lives show up as poverty, homelessness, and human trafficking time and time again.”
Pathways to youth homelessness that include problematic foster placements or aging out of foster care, poverty and economic disadvantage, lack of access to housing, uncompleted high school education, and criminal justice involvement prejudice communities of color, particularly Black communities, and reveal the ongoing harm caused by systemic racism today.
According to statistics cited by the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), about one in three Black and American Indian/Alaska Native children and one in four Latinx children live below the poverty line in the U.S., compared to one in nine white children. In 2019, Black families comprised just over half (52%) of all families experiencing homelessness, according to HUD. In 2016, about 25% of the children and youth in foster care were Black.
“Schools … have become pathways to prison,” M4BL notes. “Black students are more likely than white students to be suspended, expelled, subjected to corporal punishment, arrested, and referred to law enforcement while attending school, and are routinely denied the opportunity to fully participate in public education.” During the 2013-2014 school year, the organization adds, 40% of the students who faced suspension from public school were Black, though they were only 15.5% of the student body.
In addition, M4BL says, “Black youth are systematically profiled and targeted by police, and make up 35% of arrests of people under 18.” Black youth in general are twice as likely as their white peers to be arrested, and Black women ages 18-19 are four times as likely to be arrested as white women the same age. What is even more harsh is that Black children are nine times more likely than white children to receive an adult prison sentence once arrested.
Journalist Justin Worland, writing for Time magazine, notes that where housing is concerned, “The obstruction of Black homeownership, among other factors, has left African Americans poorer and more economically vulnerable, with the average Black household worth $17,000 in 2016 while the average white household was worth 10 times that.”
Worland continues, “The neighborhoods where Black Americans often find themselves confined by a legacy of discriminatory policy are rife with pollution and, in many cases, lack even basic options for nutritious food. This leaves residents more likely to suffer from health ailments like asthma and diabetes, both of which increase the chances of poor outcomes for those infected with COVID-19.” In fact, according to CDC data analyzed by The New York Times, African American and Latinx residents of the U.S. have been three times as likely to become infected with the coronavirus as their white neighbors.
Racial Discrimination and Trauma
Racism negatively impacts a young person’s sense of self. It is as teens that young people establish critical aspects of their identity within the various environments, influences and exposures that surround them. “These forces can either create tension and deliver toxic levels of stress or build resilience and other strengths,” says the book “Reaching Teens” in a new chapter devoted to examining the impacts of racism on young people.
Racism also attempts to lock young people of color into low expectations for their lives, the authors add. Two-thirds of Black and Latinx youth attend segregated schools that often have lower budgets that impact class size, teacher qualifications, and the availability of instructional resources. “In these schools, youth of color are subject to biased perceptions of misbehavior by educators and stories that perpetuate a ‘failure narrative,’” the writers underscore.
Racism figures among what psychologists and social workers call “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs. Initially considered to be related primarily to trauma that youth experience in the home, such as abuse and neglect, ACEs are now understood to include stressors that occur outside the home as well, such as community violence, living in unsafe neighborhoods, and racial discrimination.
Adverse childhood experiences, including racism, have been found to lead to physical health conditions such as heart disease, autoimmune disorders, cancer, emphysema, diabetes, and fractures, and to mental health conditions such as substance use, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Racism is literally making our young people ill.
But these negative results are not etched in stone. Research also tells us that the presence of caring adults and positive relationships are protective factors that can mitigate against the harsh effects of ACEs, including racism. With the right set of supports, young people of color can overcome ACEs and live into their full potential.
Covenant House is guided by five principles that are informed by the trauma we encounter every day among our youth. In addition to immediate care and sanctuary, our principles include value communication (modeling caring relationships based on love, trust, respect, and honesty), structure (especially stability), and choice (by which we encourage youth to believe in themselves and make informed choices for themselves).
As a society, we can accompany young people of color in overcoming the traumatic effects of racism if we will all do a better job of being their allies, encouraging their capacity for resilience, and remembering, as the chapter authors remind us, “We belong to each other.”
Racial Discrimination in Latin America
Racism has existed in Central America and Mexico for centuries with deep roots in their colonial past and much of it targeted against Indigenous populations. Systemic ethnic discrimination against Indigenous peoples is particularly common in countries like Guatemala and Mexico which have high concentrations of a variety of indigenous peoples who speak a variety of languages.
Youth from Black and Afro-descendant communities along the Caribbean coast of Central America, such as the Garifuna and Creoles in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, are discriminated against because of their darker skin color. However, the colonial past of Central America and Mexico and the mix between Europeans, native Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants and others, has also resulted in a broader gradient of skin colors.
Discrimination is not just an issue of Black and white, but the darker your skin, the more you are discriminated against. This is commonly referred to as colorism, the prejudice, or discrimination within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin.
According to a 2018 study from the World Bank, Afrodescendents in Latin America are 2.5 times as likely to live in chronic poverty compared to white and mestizo people.
Both Indigenous and Afro-Latino communities have historically had limited access to economic advancement as well as to elite spaces, leadership, elective positions, and political decision-making. This contributes to the racial, ethnic, and social hierarchies that exist across Latin America.
Those living in poverty face significant prejudice and are often left disenfranchised economically, politically, and culturally through class discrimination.
At Covenant House’s Casa Alianza/La Alianza network in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Mexico, the children and youth in our care are met with the same absolute respect, unconditional love, and resilience-affirming services that support youth across our movement and help them confront the traumas of racism and homelessness.
Racial Discrimination in Canada
According to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH), young people experiencing homelessness in Canada include a disproportionate number of individuals from “racialized communities,” or communities of color, and newcomer communities of refugees and other immigrants.
Indigenous youth, in particular, are extremely overrepresented among all young people facing homelessness. Indigenous people comprise just 4% of the national population, but they are more than 30% of all young people experiencing homelessness in Canada. For these youth, homelessness means more than not having a roof over their head. It implies a disconnection from important, life-giving cultural elements such as human kinship, earth, water, animals, spirits, traditional songs, ancestors, and more.
Young people of color make up about 19% of the Canadian population, but comprise more than 28% of all youth facing homelessness in Canada. And young refugees and immigrants comprise another 10% of all young people without a place to call home. Together, young people of color, newcomers, and Indigenous youth make up more than two-thirds of all young people facing homelessness in Canada.
Racial discrimination in terms of wages, job opportunities, housing, and education line the pathway to youth homelessness. One in five families of color will live in poverty in Canada, for example, while only one in 20 white families will do so.
The Canadian government has taken steps to address systemic racism in Canadian society, last year unveiling a strategy that includes the creation of an Anti-Racism Secretariat to comprehensively address racism and racial discrimination.
But much will need to be done in order to reverse the findings in the 2017 report of the U.N. Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, which notes, “Across Canada, many people of African descent continue to live in poverty and poor health, have low educational attainment and are overrepresented at all levels of the criminal justice system.”
Covenant House’s trauma-informed care at our houses in Toronto and Vancouver offer young people of color, Indigenous, and all youth experiencing homelessness a sanctuary, where they feel loved and honored for who they are, and holistic programs and services that encourage and support youths’ resilience.
Across the three regions where Covenant House serves young people facing homelessness, in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America, racial discrimination is a pipeline to youth homelessness. We can’t end youth homelessness until the underlying causes—including racial inequity in education, opportunity, housing, and more—are addressed and no young person has to find themselves without a safe place and support to grow into their dreams.
“The Traumatic Impact of Racism and Discrimination on Young People and How to Talk About It,” Reaching Teens, second edition, 2020.
Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities (SPARC), Bassuk Center, report, 2018.
“End the War on Black Youth,” Movement for Black Lives.
“Covenant House Stands in Solidarity,” Kevin Ryan, covenanthouse.org, June 2020.
“Most Americans Say the Legacy of Slavery Still Affects Black People in the U.S. Today,” Pew Research Center FactTank, June 17, 2019.
Racial Injustice and Discrimination in Latin America, CHI Latin America Team and Casas National Directors, June 2020.
“America’s Long-Overdue Awakening,” Justin Worland, Time magazine, June 11, 2020.
“Canada has a long, documented history of racism and racial discrimination. Don’t look away,” The Globe and Mail, June 12, 2020.
“Racialized Communities,” Homeless Hub, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.
“Too Little, Too Late: Reimagining Our Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada,” Homeless Hub, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, 2016.
“The Fullest Look Yet at the Racial Inequity of Coronavirus,” The New York Times, July 5, 2020.