AUSTIN (Sept. 29, 2021) — Austin/Travis County’s Homelessness Response System, like so many across the country, is imbued with systemic racism.
Look no further than the 2021 Racial Disparities Report (PDF) for the evidence: A Black person is six times more likely to experience homelessness in Austin than a white person. Black and Hispanic/Latinx people, despite similar rates of exits to permanent housing, return to homelessness more often and more quickly than white people. The organizations (including ECHO) that serve our unhoused population are majority white and non-Hispanic/Latinx even though the people we serve are disproportionately people of color.
Gender inequities abound, too: Transgender people report higher rates of violence and victimization on the street, with Black and Brown transgender people bearing the worst of it. At least 44 transgender people were killed last year in hate-related violence, marking the highest number of hate-related murders of transgender people in the U.S. since the Human Rights Campaign began tracking the statistics. The majority of the victims were Black or Hispanic/Latinx.
In a city with no dedicated emergency shelter space for transgender people experiencing homelessness, trans people are forced either to hide who they are or remain unsheltered.
It follows, then, that among many other reforms necessary to right these historic wrongs, our community should prioritize connecting Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and transgender people to stable, sustainable housing.
So that’s what we’re doing.
On October 1, Austin/Travis County homelessness service providers will implement a new tool called the Austin Prioritization Index (API) to better reflect the need for scarce resources among Black, non-white, and transgender people experiencing homelessness.
The API was created by the Equity Task Group, a team of community stakeholders and people with lived experience of homelessness within the Homelessness Response System governance structure. This group used racial and gender equity lenses to reimagine the way our community assesses people’s needs during the Coordinated Entry process, the first step for an unhoused person to access permanent housing.
Explore our Q&A about the API, in which we answer these six broad questions:
- What is the API?
- What does the API replace?
- Why an equity-centered tool?
- How did the API come about?
- What’s the impact?
- What comes next?
Want to learn more? Join us on Tuesday, Oct. 12, at 6 p.m. on our Facebook page for a live virtual event to present the API to the community and answer questions. Have a question that’s not answered on the Q&A page? Submit it to firstname.lastname@example.org with API in the subject line and we will do our best to answer your question during the event.
The API is just one step toward equity
The API represents a major shift in how our community looks at the need for resources, but it’s just one step. We must also continue to work to eliminate the forces outside the Homelessness Response System that lead to the disproportionality we see in the population we serve.
Whether in housing or healthcare, education or employment, policing or the criminal legal system, white cisgender men built and maintain systems that benefit white cisgender men. This white male supremacist culture means Black, Brown, and transgender people endure sustained oppression and discrimination in virtually every system that governs our lives, leading to higher rates of housing instability and homelessness.
Acknowledging and eliminating these sources of systemic inequities is the responsibility of everyone living in our community. The Homelessness Response System plays an important role in addressing the downstream effects of systemic racism, but combatting the upstream causes is equally – if not more – important.
Upstream causes of housing instability
In the 1920s, the City of Austin infamously created legalized segregation, using its 1928 Master Plan to create a “Negro district” in east Austin and eliminating city services in other parts of the city to force Black people to move there.
A decade later when the federal government began backing mortgage loans as part of the New Deal, a federally-created body known as the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) created maps for lenders that designated these east Austin neighborhoods as areas with the highest risk. This process, which came to be known as redlining, prevented Black families in Austin and across the country from securing home loans.
We see the effects of this today. Buying a home is a building block to generational wealth, one reason the data show that Black households in Austin are nearly twice as likely to have zero net worth than white households (34% vs. 18%).
Compounding this injustice, the areas of Austin that have the highest proportions of Black residents are potentially gentrifying at much higher rates (46.2%) than areas with lower proportions of Black residents (30.6%). This is a community-level indicator of risk of homelessness.
The systems that allowed white families to build generational wealth that persists in the 21st century actively prevented Black families from doing the same.
White people are insured at higher rates than Black and Brown people. In the U.S. in 2019, 20% of Hispanic/Latinx people and 11% of Black people were uninsured, compared to 8% of white people. In Travis County, according to research (PDF) from the Urban Institute, 58% of the uninsured population identifies as Hispanic.
A lack of affordable healthcare is a key driver of homelessness in our community. A serious illness or injury, even for someone with health coverage, can be a devastating financial blow and can lead to difficult choices between paying medical bills and rent. Without health insurance, the financial devastation of such events is even more extreme. For many, health issues become chronic, as routine treatment is not a financially feasible option. Chronic illness and other disabilities are intimately intertwined with homelessness, both as a potential cause and a potential effect of homelessness. About 7 in 10 unhoused people in Austin/Travis County are living with some kind of disability.
Austin/Travis County’s Community Health Assessment (PDF) in 2017 noted Black and Hispanic/Latinx people, due to cost, did not see a doctor when they needed at higher rates than white people. About one-fifth of Black and Hispanic/Latinx people reported not seeing a doctor in the 12 months prior when they needed to, compared to about one-tenth of white people.
Texas has so far refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, one of 12 states not to grow the pool of people eligible for life-saving care. The Urban Institute estimates 39,000 Texans would be eligible for health coverage if the state were to expand Medicaid to people earning up to 138% of the federal poverty level, the threshold for Medicaid under the expansion. More than half (55%) of uninsured people in Travis County have incomes less than 138% of the federal poverty level.
In addition to health insurance, access to medical facilities, transportation, housing, and other disparities contribute to overall health outcomes. Parts of west Austin, which are disproportionately white, have life expectancies 20 years higher than parts of east Austin, which are disproportionately Black.
Expanding health coverage would lead to more equitable health outcomes for Hispanic/Latinx and Black people in Austin/Travis County and would likely allow more people to maintain their housing stability as a result.
EDUCATION AND EMPLOYMENT
A study published this year by the financial site WalletHub found that while the Austin-Round Rock area is the 9th-most educated place in the country, the region is also among the five communities with the largest racial education gap that favors white people.
Black and Hispanic/Latinx students in Austin ISD score lower on overage on standardized tests. Less than a third of Black students and less than 40% of Hispanic/Latinx students met the grade level reading requirement on the state’s STAAR test in 2018, KUT reports.
The reasons for this achievement gap, which persists across much of the country, are not borne of differences in inherent intelligence between non-white and white students, but of a difference in opportunity, social pressures, and systemic racism. Segregation concentrates poverty in schools, leading to fewer educational opportunities for students from marginalized communities than for affluent white students.
As a result of these systemic inequities, Black and Hispanic/Latinx students attain high school and college diplomas at lower rates than white students. The lower a person’s educational attainment, the less they are likely to be paid.
Black and Hispanic/Latinx people in Travis County are more likely than white people to participate in the labor force, but the unemployment rate is higher for Black people (7%) and Hispanic/Latinx people (3.1%) than it is for non-Hispanic white people (2.9%), according to the 2019 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau. Unemployment is highest among people with a high school diploma or less.
Low wages and poverty cause people to experience homelessness in our community. The systemic racism that exists in education and employment drives more Black and Brown people into housing instability.
POLICING AND THE CRIMINAL LEGAL SYSTEM
About 1 in 4 people booked into the Travis County jail is Black, compared to less than 1 in 10 people in the overall county population. This, too, is the result of systemic racism, data released by the City of Austin last year shows.
Black people represented 14% of vehicle stops and a quarter of all searches and arrests that resulted from vehicle stops between 2015 and 2019, a report published by the City found (PDF). Black drivers are about three times more likely to be searched and arrested than white drivers.
Black and Hispanic/Latinx Austinites are more likely to be cited and/or arrested than white people, and the report found warnings were concentrated in west Austin and arrests were concentrated in east Austin.
Once arrested, Travis County courts contribute to further disparities, Grassroots Leadership found in 2015 (PDF). Black people spend an average of 62.6% more time in jail per booking than white people, and Hispanic/Latinx people spend 21.9% more time in jail per booking. Even controlling for the number of charges per booking, non-white people stay in jail longer than white people facing similar charges.
Criminal legal system entanglements affect a person’s job and rental prospects, leading people into higher risks of experiencing homelessness as a result of arrests for even minor violations. These entanglements disproportionately affect Black and Brown people, and this systemic racism translates to further disparities in the Homelessness Response System.
We can’t change who experiences homelessness without changing all these other systems
Austin/Travis County’s Homelessness Response System has a long way to go to achieve truly equitable outcomes for everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender identity. The API is a start.
But to truly change who experiences homelessness and prevent people from ever experiencing it in the first place, our community must address the ways in which white male supremacy manifests itself in all these other systems. It takes everyone pulling in the same direction to change this dominant culture, and this is work we must do.
As Brion Oaks, Chief Equity Officer for the City of Austin and Chair of the Homelessness Response System Leadership Council, puts it: “Homelessness is not an individual issue, it’s a systemic and institutional issue. We will never be able to end homelessness in our community without addressing the racial disparities present in intersecting systems in this city. From education to employment, we know that there are inequitable outcomes that are disproportionately affecting Black, Indigenous and people of color in our community. For us to correct decades of disinvestment in homelessness response, we must be courageous in also correcting centuries of institutional and systemic racism. Undoing racism and ending homelessness are inextricably linked.”