What It’s Like To Be Black And Homeless In Seattle (Quadruple Participation)

I encourage everyone to read this article (because it is that important) and discuss below – how does the article challenge your views of Seattle?  How does it show the interconnected nature of race and class; what does it reveal about the connections between policing, housing, employment, health?  How does it help us understand privilege? I really want to see you engage piece

200 words equals triple participation

Sharon H. Chang

What It’s Like To Be Black And Homeless In Seattle

 POSTED ON MARCH 24, 2015 AT 11:39 AM UPDATED: MARCH 24, 2015 AT 2:27 PM

What It’s Like To Be Black And Homeless In Seattle

Greedy D is 30 years old, black, and homeless. When he was younger, he always went to school and then after he graduated always held a job. He has a culinary arts degree and went through the Job Corps. But a car accident, debt, bad luck, and a poor support system set him on a different path.

Racism has played a central role in leading him to where he is today and now also stands in the way of him obtaining a better life. Greedy knows people negatively stereotype him because he’s black. “I’m an African American, I’m scruffy,” he said. “I have a lot of stereotypes [like] he only listens to rap music, he might be mean to me, he might yell or talk with a loud tone.” He knows that in this country, black men have to work harder. “If you know that you have people against you, or you know about racism, you know about what this country’s history is,” he pointed out. “You have to over-perform at your best.”

Seattle's Tent City 3

Seattle’s Tent City 3

CREDIT: SHARON H. CHANG

Seattle’s homeless population has ballooned in recent years. It’s the 23rdlargest city in the U.S. but currently has the fourth largest homeless population, beat out only by New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. Washington State overall had one of the biggest increases nationally in its homeless population between 2013 and 2014 while 31 other states have seen a decline.

And it would appear Seattle’s numbers are only increasing. This year’s annual one-night count of King County’s homeless found a whopping 21 percent increase in homelessness over the prior year, and even that is an undercount.

Racial disparities underpin the city’s growing problem with homelessness. Its general population is over 60 percent white, but the homeless population is over 60 percent people of color. Though blacks make up only around 7 percent of Seattle’s population, they are vastly overrepresented among Seattle’s most marginalized and oppressed groups. In 2010, 15.7 percent of those unemployed in Seattle and 35 percent of those living in poverty were black. In 2013, Seattle’s general median household income climbed to a record high while black household income plummeted 13.5 percent.

Michael Volz, a caseworker who served the homeless for over six years through the King County Jail and later Veterans Affairs , confirmed people of color are disproportionately homeless in Seattle. The city is “tremendously racist,” he said frankly. “Racist in our hiring practices; racist in the way people are treated when they try to receive services.”

Volz said Seattle’s growing homeless population can be attributed in large part to government social service budget cuts over the last 20 years. But he also attributes the spike to discriminatory police practices. From 1980-2011,
<href=”http: http://www.sentencingproject.org=””; map=”” map.cfm#map”=””>Seattle’s prison population grew from 315,974 to 1,537,415, and at last count the King County Department of Adult & Juvenile Detention showed 35.7 percent of those in secure confinement were black.

“I see homeless people being targeted and criminalized by the legal system at such a high rate,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Seattle has such a horrible time with the police force and then in addition to that [has] this ballooning homeless population.” For instance, nearly half of Seattle’s marijuana citations go to homeless people. And it was the shooting of unarmed homeless Native American John T. Williams in 2010 that led the Seattle Police Department to fall under federal investigation for excessive use of force.

In Seattle, Greedy D said, racism is particularly common with cops. He recounted being arrested for criminal trespassing for no reason, being loudly told he was resisting despite being pinned with his arm twisted behind his back, and then being surrounded by nine cop cars. “That’s what happens with cops and black dudes. All eyes are always on you,” he explained. “They expect you to be crazy. Overreact.” He protested, “I don’t sell drugs. I’m not the bad guy.”

Many advocates feel bringing race into the conversation is necessary to address homelessness. Racism means that poverty not only hits people of color harder but that it’s also harder for those people of color to improve their circumstances because they are constantly discriminated against.

Consider Willie, a 40-year-old homeless man who identifies as mixed race. He thinks racism is worse in Seattle than in Northern California from where he came. His paternal heritage is Mexican, white, Indian, and black and maternal heritage is African, Indian, and white. Yet he feels like his dark skin means everyone just treats him as African American. And once they see him as black, he said, they want to know, “What’s my angle? What do I want?”

One of the worst forms of bias he faces is employment discrimination. Willie has a resume that impresses employers. He graduated from college and holds an Associate’s degree and various certificates. “But when [employers] actually see me, everything seems to change,” he said. “I’m going to get a 16 dollar an hour job, but I’m offered an 8 or 9 dollar an hour job.” Even if Willie agrees to the lower-paid position, when he calls back a week later to inquire about the job, he’s told it has been filled. “With someone with less experience or little to no experience,” he added. “I have to do more to convince people.”

Anthony, a 33 year-old Native American and Hispanic man who is homeless in Seattle, has been sober for over five years and currently lives in Tent City 3. He said regardless of the fact that he has some money in his pocket and wears normal clothes or is even sometimes nicely dressed, he is still followed when he goes into stores. Because of his race, employees and owners think he’s going to steal. “I’m like, ‘What?’ I ain’t gonna steal – I got money right here,” he said. “I mean it’s just how they stereotype [me] and it just pisses me off.” Anthony, who hails from Wyoming, also thinks racism is worse in Seattle. “Now when I go into stores,” he explained, “I just have to…get what I need. Get right out.”

Joaquin Uy, communications specialist and co-chair of the anti-oppression work group at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, said Seattle has a hard time talking about race. Uy is also part of the Racial Equity Team, a group of lobbyists and community organizers who get together to look at pending legislation. He pointed out that even on this team, “All of a sudden when it comes to homelessness, there are people who are like, ‘Is there a racial equity component to this? I don’t get it. It’s just homelessness.’” Uy observed that people often think homelessness is just a class issue. “It then becomes this meritocratic capitalistic discussion about, ‘You’re not worth it. You’re not trying hard enough.’”

Joaquin Uy also stressed that racist institutions have disadvantaged people of color throughout history. “When Washington as a territory was first started, there were actually provisions written into the charter that forbade Chinese people from owning property,” he noted. As the territory became a state and cities were formed, racial housing covenants were then written into nicer neighborhoods around Seattle, where owners were forbidden from selling to anyone of Malay, Negro, Mongoloid, or Jewish ancestry. It was only about 50 years ago that the state failed to pass its own Fair Housing Law.

In 2005, Seattle and King County introduced a 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. The plan was crafted by a coalition of local organizations. It proposed principal actions to prevent homelessness, move homeless people quickly into housing, and sustain progress over time. The plan touted itself as an “unprecedented coordinated approach to planning, funding, and delivering housing and services to people who experience homeless throughout King County.”

But both Uy and Volz criticized the plan as unrealistic and failing to address the systemic issues necessary to truly end homelessness. “I don’t see how the city can possibly have a 10-year plan to end homelessness without addressing the disproportionate poverty, the discriminatory housing practices, the gatekeeping that happens in the city for services,” Volz said. “There’s so many more systemic issues going on that if you don’t address those, what are we doing? It’s like if you have a broken bone, I’m not going to talk about the scrape on the skin.”

They both conceded that it’s difficult for advocates and case workers to add race conversations or extra training to their already enormous workloads and long, underpaid hours. But, Uy said, “It doesn’t have to be a discussion about adding more hours, it’s more of a discussion of working the hours you’re already doing but making sure that race is a part of that.” He added, “When you create a culture which can talk about race frankly and not be afraid to talk about race and race discussions are just part of the culture of the organization, then it bleeds into all of the other aspects of your job.”

One of Volz’s job duties is to perform intake when assessing homeless people for services. One of the mandatory questions he feels bad about having to ask in such a sterile way is, “Have you had any legal involvement?” He said the response by homeless people of color is often strong and incensed, “I’m a black man. Of course. Of course I’ve been arrested. I’m homeless…I’m harassed by the police. I’m arrested constantly. It’s a huge barrier.”

Volz said he absolutely agrees. “They’re right. It’s a huge barrier.”

Sharon H. Chang is an author, scholar, sociologist and activist. She writes primarily on racism and social justice with a feminist lens. Her pieces have been featured in Racism Review, The Seattle Gloablist, Hyphen Magazine, ParentMap Magazine, AAPI Voices and on her own blog, Multiracial Asian Families.

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14 comments

  1. I’m from Olympia, which is only about an hour south of Seattle, so I’m there pretty often. When I think of Seattle, I am drawn towards that “hipster” stigma, always doing something “before it’s cool”. Washington was one of the first states to legalize marijuana and gay marriage, very liberal debates in today’s society. Now, I know that homelessness is an issue all over the country, but how is Washington (specifically Seattle) able to pass those kind of laws, but still not have the social awareness to see that race is playing a key factor in homelessness? The argument that there’s no time to discuss race is absurd. Like the article said, you don’t have to specifically discuss race, but just in your everyday work and discussions, talk about how the decisions you make will affect people of different races. Because clearly, other races aren’t being given equal opportunity in many aspects, as white people are. That lack of opportunity is huge, because it makes the margin of error smaller and smaller. If a black man loses his job, or gets in trouble with the law (whether he’s guilty or not), that only makes it tougher and tougher to recover, which often leads to homelessness. We say we want to fix homelessness, but racial inequality is at the root of the issue.

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  2. Seattle being prominently white, it is easy to judge their segregated society against blacks, like Greedy in this article. Most people believe can say that minority groups are thought of to be in lower classes just like in this article. These lower classes are typically people of color which is where we can connect white privilege and how the “whites” live in better and safer areas. So it is no surprise to me that Seattle is having an increase number in homeless people because the majority of them are white, upper class families who do not pay much attention to lower class minorities. Being from Los Angeles I know quite a bit about homeless people and see it as a “normal” thing around my area. I also take notice to the statement that Volz said and completely agree with him on how much money the government is losing whenever someone goes homeless. I have noticed the more poor a neighborhood is the more homeless people there are in the area. So when looking at Seattle I suspect it wouldn’t be different. Seattle being so similar in size and culture to Los Angeles I see no huge differences between the two locations. Therefore this article did not challenge my views or prior beliefs on the city itself.

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  3. This article really opened my eyes to some of the issues occurring in Seattle that I am not up to date on. I always knew Seattle had a large homeless population and whatnot, but I was not educated on all of the things that contributed to it. I just always assumed that the homeless population was due to lack of jobs and budget cuts. It was very surprising to read that a portion of the homeless population is due to police discrimination. In the news and papers lately, we have seen plenty of stories of brutal police discrimination, but I didn’t really ever think it could happen this close to home. I guess everyone thinks it will never happen to them or happen close to where they live. I found it interesting how the article said that in 2013, “Seattle’s general median household income climbed to a record high while black household income plummeted 13.5 percent.” That statement puts into practice that employers indeed do discriminate against skin color. An example of this in the article is Willie, a 40 year old homeless man who identifies himself as mixed race. Willie obtains an Associate’s degree, as well as multiple different certificates. His resume is very impressive to employers, yet when they see him in person everything changes. Reading this article has most definitely changed my views of Seattle. It was very sad reading about examples of blatant racism happening right in our neck of the woods. This article also shows the interconnected nature of race and class. It said that the black household income has dropped by 13.5%, and Seattle’s homeless population is over 60% people of color. Hmmm, interesting. It’s all connected. Employers will discriminate against people of color, they land significantly lower paying jobs, their household income decreases, and then they end up homeless. The article above can help us understand privilege because, it gives examples of how privilege comes to people simply because they are a part of a certain social category. I will use Willie for example. He has a great resume and got a lower paying job because basically, he was not white. If a white person had the same exact resume, I’m sure they would instantly get a job paying double what Willie makes. It made me so angry reading that part. You really can’t hire someone with a great resume just because they aren’t white? Overall, reading and processing this article really opened my eyes to the racism and privilege taking place not very far away from the little town of Pullman.

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  4. I do not visit Seattle very often because it is away from my hometown, however I have visited a few times. When I think of Seattle, I imagined a big city with a lot of job’s opportunities, where everyone has a chance. I was even considering moving to Seattle when I graduated from college. I agree with Elizabeth this article made me realize that Seattle has some issues about homeless population. For instance Greedy went to school and he even has a culinary degree, yet he could not find a job. However is not about applying and finding jobs, it is about racism. For non-white people it is harder to obtain a job because they do not have the “invisible backpack” of privileges. One of the comments that Greedy received was that black people have to work harder in this country. Therefore, just because he is black he has to overcome more obstacles. African American face employment discrimination, they have to work harder to get a job. For example, Willie has a college degree and a good resume but people do not hired him because of his color. Like he said he has to do more to convince people. Homeless population has increased in Seattle because of discrimination against non-white people, making it harder for them to get a job and to have a better life.

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  5. There are a lot of homeless people in Seattle as I noticed in the last year; when I went there. I think most of them living this bad circumstance because of poverty which cause of lack in finding job. Usually homeless people are the colored people and that is result of employment discrimination. Non-white people having hard time to live even in street because police discriminatory practices.

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  6. I am from East side of Washington and have only visited Seattle a hand-full of times. While walking the streets you notice on every corner there is some form of homelessness. Beggers asking for a helping hand. I remember one man, I believe black, asking for some money for the bus and my automatic response was to ignore him because my prejudice perceived that he did not need money for the bus, he needed it for drugs. Now, I believe society has taught me to turn the other cheek when it comes to helping those in need. Even though I am Hispanic and not white, society teaches you to ignore the homeless people because they are there for the reason that they are on drugs and lazy. This article I just read shows that Seattle is racist and opened my eyes to my own racism. Homeless people are not all where they are because of drugs. The statistics showed that Seattle was 60% white yet 60% homeless were black. This is a major problem that needs to get better because it just keeps on getting worse despite a 10-year plan to end homelessness.

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  7. Im from California and I thought the homeless in San francisco were mistreated and that we had one of the greatest population of homelessness, I was quite wrong with what I found out. Reading this article really opened my eyes to what the homeless world is like and the statistics of being homeless. Seattle is the 4th in the nation for homeless people population. Over 60% of the homeless people are colored with stereotypes following them before they can even speak. People now a days are so quick to jump to conclusions about a person. Many will just ignore people just because they assume they are going to use it for drugs and other things that won’t help them get a job. The article made me realize how Seattle is racist and my own racism towards the different races, I assume why people are homeless just because of the race and how they look. This is something that demands serious attention from society because if people keep judging other just due to race we would never have equality and equity. This is definitely something that we need to invest time to and try to make things better for the homeless and just racism in general.

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  8. It is hard reading this article because I am white and come from a very well off family, so sympathy is all can give. I have never though about how one can still go to high school and college and still end up homeless. In the beginning of this article it points out how this man, Greedy D, has had jobs, has a culinary degree and went through the Job Corps, but yet is still struggling just because of his skin color. Then when your put in that category of homeless you are watched and criticized so much more. Michael Volz talked about how homeless people get seen as being criminals so much more just based on their circumstances, and I am sure it is because people just stereotype the homeless as being dumb, bad, violent people who just sell drugs and just want to rob people to get themselves things. This legal involvement even spikes when colored homeless people are asked about run ins with the cops, because of the even more common stereotypes about homeless people of color.

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  9. At the beginning of the article, they talked about how Seattle has the fourth largest homeless population out of being the 23rd largest city in the United States. Does that also imply that Seattle is one of the most racist city in the U.S.? I had a thought about how Seattle has developed over the past years and it seems as if a diversity bomb has struck. What I mean by that, is there are a lot more people from different ethnic backgrounds migrating to Seattle. Coming from India, my parents’ purpose was to make money. The only reason they tell me to stay away from the Seattle area is because of the people of color. Their observations and media tells a misleading story of how the city really is, and that negative image is used as a resource by their peers. And because diversity is increasing and more qualified people from different backgrounds are coming for jobs, the amount of homeless people is increasing. It is also getting very difficult for already-underprivileged people to acquire jobs. By underprivileged, I mean people who have to fight against negative stereotypes that become racist and impact people’s prejudice. Out of all the things that could set Greedy D in a different path, I think the poor support system is what disrupted him the most. It’s crazy to think that the police have to constantly surveillance black people because they think they might overreact or commit a fraud. This extra effort and work black people have to go through is unnecessary. “You’re not worth it. You’re not trying hard enough”?!?! No. Black people have worked way harder to be just as, or most likely more, qualified than the person saying that. The only reason black people are homeless is because corporate that think black people give them a bad image, shut them down.
    My views of Seattle hasn’t changed, I have not encountered any problems while I’m there. I was surprised when I found out that Seattle was a very racist city, it was hard to believe. And the fact that we are right below New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angles with the amount of homeless population mind-boggles me. There is, without a doubt, privilege in Seattle. And due to this privilege, peoples housing, health, and employment have been affected. They have been effecting black people in a way that majority of them are in a lower class than the rest of the population. What bothers me even more is that people know not to judge based off appearance and yet, they “play it safe” and not risk the bad stereotype. So many people would not be homeless if other people give them an opportunity. Seattle, nay, America cannot be the land of opportunity if people are prejudice because of negative racism.

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  10. I actually heard someone say Seattle was “pretty liberal” last week and I responded, “You’d be surprised.” Reading what we’ve read about this city so far has really opened my eyes, but I’m not surprised. Savannah said that because she’s from Los Angeles, she pretty much sees this kind of thing regularly and I agree. LA is quite literally split into distinct sections, and homelessness is a big issue where I’m from .The majority of people on the streets are people of color and I’m not shocked to find out that it’s no different in places that are predominately white or in a place that is ostensibly “liberal” and “forward-thinking”. The article said that Washington had laws against Chinese people owning land along with various other discriminatory laws. With that embedded into the system, how can you expect it to disappear? And the system works so well that it’s virtually invisible to most people, so things stay the same (or get worse for people of color, as the article points out). Willie’s experiences as as a person of color, and as a person whose identity is simplified to fit into a box (i.e., Black man), may be shocking to some but it’s all too common. I really identify with him because even though I’m “light-skinned” and a female, characteristics that make people’s perception of me slightly different than their perception of Willie, I know that I’ll face this kind of discrimination more than a few times in my life. The worst part of discrimination is that it’s a FACT for people of color, not a chance or a “maybe”. And Seattle doesn’t seem like much of a safe haven in that regard.

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  11. I have never been to Seattle, but I know that it is a big city. Also, I heard that it has many homeless. Everyone knows that those people became homeless because of not having jobs. In addition, some of them couldn’t have jobs because there is discrimination between people. Most of homeless people are black that why the discrimination effects in those people. I think there should be a group try to people those people, and the American nation should delete the discrimination from there mind.

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  12. Greedy D, blames racism because he thinks it stands in his way of living a better life. He mentions that there are many stereotypes pointed toward him just because he’s black. According to Michael Volz, Seattle is a racist city in ways of job hiring, how people are treated or simply getting service. A main concern Seattle faces racism is within’ the police officials. “Racism means that poverty not only hits people of color harder but that it’s also harder for those people of color to improve their circumstances because they are constantly discriminated against”. Employment discrimination has got to be the worst one of all. Even if a person has such an amazing resume, once they’re scheduled for an interview, appearance and looks are what seems to be taken into consideration first, rather than that person’s skills itself. It’s upsetting how looks actually mean something as a whole to some people. Just because an individual is black, dress nice and obviously have cash on them, they’re still watched over closely, assuming that they’re going to steal things. This article challenges my views of Seattle because even if I’ve never been to Seattle, I’ve seen pictures and heard from others that it’s such a beautiful city. Never has it crossed my mind that Seattle is so heavy in racism and discrimination After reading this article, basically if you’re of a certain race or color to whom people”dislike”, you’ll be treated like trash or treated like nothing. That’s the sad truth about society, and I do not see it changing anytime soon. It’s clear that many races aren’t given equal opportunities as what “white” people receive.

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  13. It sad to learn that as a citizen born and raised in the Seattle area, I remained oblivious to that fact that Seattle currently has the fourth largest homeless population. In addition, I was shocked to learn about the barriers that Seattle’s black homeless population face. It’s also discouraging to learn that movements to end homelessness such as the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness don’t address the issue of racism among employment and services. This article has helped me realized just how unprivileged I can be. Although I have yet to apply for a job, before reading this article I felt that employment discrimination would not be too much of an issue for me. Despite my full Hispanic background, I was blessed with a semi-white name, Amanda Nicole. This article points out that despite the name, and level of experience, Seattle hits hard when it comes to employment discrimination. So much so that it has the ability to maintain people within a homeless/poverty class. Even though I’m not African American, I sometimes fear for every one of any minority races. It’s outrageous that although these African Americans have proved their citizenship through education and empty criminal records, discrimination for employers and law enforcement was able to pull them down to the bottom. Makes me wonder if American really is the land of freedom and opportunity when race not work ethics, limits the success of its citizens.

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