I See You: Asian/Asian Americans Experiencing Homelessness on the Rise

Written by Alissa Parrish, Senior Manager of Homeless Services, ICF
A friend from junior high school recently sent me a picture of a journal entry I had written for our ninth grade graduation. It asked a range of questions, including “what is your prediction for the future?” I re-read the responses my teenage self wrote and had a good laugh. But it was my response to the prediction for the future that stopped me in my tracks: “That no one will ever be hungry or homeless and no violence in the world.”

Fast forward to 2020 when COVID-19 and America’s racial awakening created an opportunity for the nation to have open and transparent dialogue about who is more likely to be hungry, experience homelessness, or be the victim of violence in our country. For the first time ever in my professional life, we were having real conversations about race and its impact on who was most impacted by COVID-19 (it was people of color), who was most impacted by homelessness (also people of color), and who was most impacted by violence and injustice (and again, people of color).

I remember being in a conversation with a woman in a community I was working with, and we were talking about the local homeless response system, the power dynamics, and the difficulties she was facing in moving things forward. During the conversation, she said, “well, you get it, you’re a woman of color,” and then she kept talking. While she didn’t realize it, in that moment, I felt more seen than I had ever felt in my life. That simple statement of reality came without any of the caveats I’ve heard my entire life – things like, “but you’re not black”, “but your parents are white”, or “but you speak perfect English.” These qualifiers have served to minimize the reality that erase my heritage, I am a person of color, and suggest that I can’t possibly experience racism. That conversation was the first time I had ever felt un-erased, un-ignored, un-hidden. What I heard in that conversation was, I see you.

Asian Americans continue to make up a small percentage of the overall population of people experiencing a housing crisis and, in many communities, they are underrepresented. As an example, the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ State of Homelessness: 2023 Edition identifies that the count of Asian Americans experiencing homelessness in 2022 was the lowest of all races and ethnicity at 8,261 people. Additionally, Asian Americans accounted for the lowest rate of homelessness at 4.1 per 10,000 people. We could stop our analysis here and assume that Asian Americans are fine – that they must not need the homeless response system and the services offered, since they aren’t accessing it. After all, the model minority myth would suggest that Asian Americans are among some of the most successful people in this country and don’t face racism or discrimination.

However, a deeper look at the same State of Homelessness report shows that overall homelessness has increased among Asian Americans by 36 percent since 2015. Even more startling is the 83 percent increase in unsheltered homelessness among Asian Americans in that same period. Furthermore, the 2021 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress: Part 2 identifies the following:

  • Asian or Asian Americans had a 21 percent rate of being behind on rental payments during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Asians or Asian Americans, while accounting for just one percent of adult-only households experiencing sheltered homelessness, increased between 2019 and 2021 by 28 percent.
  • The number of sheltered Asian or Asian American unaccompanied youth increased by four percent between 2019 and 2021 – the only population that notably increased.

I have also supported communities in analyzing data about the performance of their homeless response system. In more than one community, Asian Americans experience homelessness for a disproportionately longer period compared to either the overall population of people experiencing homelessness or the other subpopulations of people experiencing homelessness.

So, what do these troubling trends suggest we do?

Don’t assume: If your local data shows that Asian Americans are underrepresented in your homeless response system, ask why. Seek out qualitative information to understand the underrepresentation. Is it because Asian Americans don’t need to access the homeless response system? Is it because there are barriers or lack of supports to Asian Americans accessing the homeless response system? Is it because of other factors?
Disaggregate beyond the Asian pan-ethnic umbrella: The term “Asian American” is homogenizing and often hides disparities that exist within a population of people that account for roughly 50 ethnic groups. While the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) Data Element 3.04 Race and Ethnicity includes only “Asian or Asian American” as a picklist option, the FY2024 data standards provide the option for people to identify additional race and ethnicity detail. Leveraging this level of detail is a great opportunity at the local level to understand who is specifically accessing the homeless response system and can help to identify disparities that may otherwise remain hidden.
Navigate the “small ns”: In most communities, the true number of Asian Americans experiencing homelessness is low. This shouldn’t be discounted – every data point represents someone experiencing a housing crisis. A small number of people within a subpopulation can be an opportunity to learn more about their experiences, situations, and develop potential strategies to address the specific issues they identify.
Look at the trend data: While the true number of Asian Americans may still be small, it is growing at a disproportionate, alarming rate. Analyzing who is served by your homeless response system over time could uncover trends that would be missed by looking at the data year by year in isolation. Understanding the trends can assist in identifying where there may be culturally specific gaps in support to best serve people who are accessing your local system.
Not just who, but how: Understanding how your homeless response system is performing relative to various subpopulations, including Asian Americans, is critical to developing effective strategies to improve performance. How long are Asian Americans experiencing homelessness? At what rate are Asian Americans exiting to permanent destinations? How many and how quickly are Asian Americans returning to homelessness after exiting the homeless response system?

For my ninth grade self to see her prediction for the future come to fruition, we cannot erase, ignore, or hide homelessness among Asian Americans. It should be as much a part of the conversation about addressing homelessness as other conversations about inequities, racism, and disparities and we can start by simply saying, I see you.