Equity Is the Answer all Along: Addressing Racial Trauma and Homelessness

This post is written by Saba Mwine (she/her), Senior Program Manager for CSH Los Angeles and equity strategist.

Racism is fundamental to the United States’ inception: our founding as a nation and economy depended on it. Chattel slavery and the genocide of Indigenous people supplied the labor and land for cotton, our nation’s first economic boon and lucrative export. Through social practice and policy, the U.S. has maintained a racialized underclass and the legacy of policies like redlining, black codes, and the War on Drugs have deeply disadvantaged Black and Brown lives today and will for generations to come.

We see the impact of these policies in the disproportionate rate of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPoC) experiencing homelessness in every single state, understanding that racism is a driver of homelessness. We also see BIPoC disproportionately impacted by both economic losses and deaths by COVID-19 – also due to historic and ongoing systemic racial inequities.  

Given what we know about the disparities among people experiencing homelessness and the pandemic, a critical question to ask, which has not received as much attention as warranted, is: How are BIPoC who are experiencing homelessness coping with the additional stressors related to COVID-19?  We know that laudable efforts are underway to house and vaccinate vulnerable people during this devastating pandemic, but we should also be advocating for systems and programs to be just as vigilant about addressing the combined toll of racism, homelessness, and COVID-19 on the mental health of BIPoC individuals experiencing housing instability and homelessness.

Racial Disparities and Behavioral Health

In addition to housing disparities, data suggests that BIPoC are far less likely than Whites to receive treatment for behavioral health issues, and this predates the pandemic.  We now have a great opportunity, and the momentum to rethink our strategies for service delivery to BIPoC communities. Many organizations are restructuring their systems in light of COVID-19 and racial turmoil exacerbated by murders like that of Mr. George Floyd.  We should begin to actively build multi-racial coalitions and service approaches to engage in advocacy to address racial trauma and healing.

Addressing Racial Trauma Among People of Color Experiencing Homelessness

Those of us in the field must seek to understand the intersection of racial trauma and the trauma of homelessness. Racial trauma is complex trauma resulting from the ongoing experience of oppression and subordination; it is mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes.[1] BIPoC experiencing or falling into homelessness in the US often know racial trauma and oppression via multiple systems, and often for generations. Across the country, Indigenous and Black people are disproportionately represented  not only in homeless populations, but in the feeder systems to homelessness, including child welfare and justice systems. Meanwhile, we know that Latinx people are overwhelmingly undercounted in homeless counts, suggesting they are not being served to the scale of their needs.

Employing culturally specific or racially conscious trauma-informed care can help organizations and communities navigate the complexities of racial trauma. Culturally specific care means working to ensure that behavioral and healthcare providers share cultural/racial identities with those they serve, so as to protect from potential interpersonal harm in the therapeutic setting. Racially conscious trauma-informed care should include providers that have a working knowledge of the impact of racial trauma on their clients. Providers and clients can engage in open discussion regarding differences in racial/cultural identities and lived experiences to develop genuine rapport and clients can be invited to share equity related feedback with providers.

Moreover, research on culturally specific interventions shows better outcomes for BIPoC in the areas of behavioral health and willingness to return to, and fuller use of, services.

Some assets of culturally specific organizations are:

  • Shared identity as a respite from racism
  • Improved client trust
  • Better integration with communities served by the organization

Because community and staff share the sense of a shared future, culturally specific organizations are natural platforms for policy advocacy and broader social change. The culturally specific model also presents a strong framework for centering organizational and community leadership of BIPoC holding lived experiences of homelessness.

Making Progress and Restructuring Systems

Making these changes to reduce racial trauma in homelessness inherently involves changing systems as we currently know them, and we are standing at the precipice of a possible new era of reconstruction. Though we can impact change in our day to day job duties, looking to the broader system is ultimately where we will see an impact for BIPoC experiencing homelessness.

Many communities (like my own in Los Angeles County) are beginning to shift funds from police departments, as well as dedicating unrestricted funds to address the impact of racial justice, into communities of color – shifts that will benefit people experiencing homelessness and behavioral health needs.

Let’s continue to champion proven strategies: ones that shift from institutional response to crisis response multi-disciplinary teams that are racially trauma informed, and services that address health, behavioral healthcare and housing needs. A redesign of existing funding can help organizations seeking to grow their culturally specific services approach in the areas of promotion and hiring racially reflective staff. These funds are also an opportunity to invest in typically underfunded BIPoC culturally specific homeless services organizations and essential workers with an increase in salary, staff, and resources. Efforts like these will undoubtedly have an impact on BIPoC experiencing homelessness, and reduce the systemic racial trauma present in homelessness systems.

Moving Forward

This global pandemic has made clear that we as humans are indelibly interconnected; farm workers, truck drivers, health workers, teachers, homeless services workers—we as a collective society are understanding that our wellness as a people is deeply linked to each other, regardless of race.

If we can hold this truth and truly value the worth and humanity of BIPoC lives and futures, then perhaps there is a real path forward to ending homelessness.


[1] Dr. Wendy Ashley, California State University Northridge