Black Oklahoma City residents experience homelessness at disproportionate rate
For years, a disproportionate rate of Black residents in Oklahoma City have experienced homelessness, according to data from several of the city’s Point-In-Time counts.
The 2020 PIT count, which was conducted in January, shows that 26% of individuals counted as experiencing homelessness in Oklahoma City were Black. But only 14.6% of Oklahoma City’s population identifies as Black, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
The disproportionate rate has been a trend for years. In the 2016 PIT count, Black individuals made up 30% of the city’s homeless population.
Nationally, the rates are worse.
In a U.S. Housing and Urban Development report released earlier this year that was based on numbers from 2019, Black individuals made up 40% of the nation’s homeless population even though the Black community only accounts for 13% of the nation’s overall population.
“From slavery to segregation, African Americans have been systematically denied equal rights and opportunities,” according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“The effects of long-standing discrimination linger and perpetuate disparities in poverty, housing, criminal justice and health care, among other areas. These disparities, in turn, can contribute to more African Americans experiencing homelessness.”
Oklahoma City is not exempt from these issues, said Valerie Thompson, president of the Urban League of Oklahoma City.
Thompson pointed to educational gaps and employment disparities, saying the unemployment rate in the Black community can be two to three times higher than in the white community.
The state also has one of the highest levels of overall incarceration in the nation. Locally, members of the Black community consistently made up over 30% of the Oklahoma County jail population from January to April of this year, according to the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council.
A criminal record makes it more difficult to find a job or qualify for housing.
Healthy disparities also cause problems. Black women are more likely to die in childbirth, and it can be difficult to navigate the stigma around mental health care.
And for years, housing policies in Oklahoma City allowed for the legal segregation and devaluing of properties in Black neighborhoods.
“That’s what systemic racism looks like,” said Oklahoma City City Councilman James Cooper at a recent city council meeting. “That’s the legacy we are talking about, that’s the legacy we are trying to dismantle. We have got to do everything we can to move our black and brown community into home ownership where they can generate wealth and pass it down to their families the same way white families have been able to.”
These issues are much broader than what homeless service providers would be able to fix alone, said Dan Staughan, director of the Homeless Alliance.
“These are deep rooted social inequity issues that we have to address as a society,” Straughan said.
Still, Meghan Mueller, the director of community capacity building for the Homeless Alliance, is supporting the efforts of several community organizers in Northeast Oklahoma City to address the issue.
Camille Landry, a community organizer and owner of the Nappy Roots Bookstore, arranged several meetings to discuss data and come up with solutions, Mueller said.
“In order to solve the problem, you have to be able to define it,” Mueller said. “I don’t think that we as a whole understand enough about homelessness and the intersectionality of communities of color.”
Now, the goal is to provide resources to these community groups while also looking at the systems in place to identify areas of improvement within the Homeless Alliance, Mueller said.
A Homeless Alliance employee is going to begin providing community-based services like attending eviction court to do client intake and working in remote locations in the city to reduce access barriers next week.
And the Alliance plans to look at ways race could act as a barrier in its own housing systems, specifically what the data says about how many people the Alliance housed in the last year that identify as Black.
A collaborative research project with the University of Central Oklahoma looking at ways implicit bias impacts individuals experiencing homelessness is also on the horizon, Mueller said.
Thompson, with the Urban League, said she is glad organizations are beginning to pay attention and address the disparity. But she wants to see involvement from state agencies as well.