As calls resound across this nation to tackle issues of systemic racism in recognition that it is part of our history and has become encoded in federal, state and local policies, it is critical to analyze the many symptoms of this American sickness from different vantage points. In Maine, just as it is throughout the United States, the consistent and dramatic overrepresentation of Black individuals and families in homelessness provides a lens through which differences in opportunity and resources are quickly apparent. Racial disparities among homeless people have been a fact that cannot be explained away by the recent influx of immigrants and refugees who are now contributing to our state in many ways.

Black people represent less than 1.5 percent of Maine’s population. In the 2019 Point in Time Count, 26 percent of homeless individuals were Black or African American or mixed-race, and 33 percent in the count were minorities. In the Maine Housing Report on homelessness for fiscal year 2017-2018 (before the recent influx of families), 19 percent of those responding were Black or African American, with people of color at 27 percent. In contrast, in the 2013 Point in Time Count, Black or African American persons accounted for 22.8 percent of homeless individuals in Portland and 12.8 percent across the state. Notably, none of these reports includes data on the substantial Latinx homeless population that has been in Maine for many years. Additionally, data from the drop-in center for homeless youth in Portland has documented a disproportionate number of Black youth and other youth of color for two decades.

The experience of homelessness relates to many issues: poverty, lack of resources, lack of available housing, housing discrimination, trauma and mental health issues, and substance use and hopelessness. The evidence points to an enormous racial disparity in the rate of people living on the edge, in precarious housing, in the neighborhoods that have been affected the most by subpar rental housing and in housing that is being eliminated by gentrification. We see this in Maine cities just as in larger cities throughout America.

Significant differences in accumulated wealth and in access to education that meets minority youth learning needs contribute to higher rates of homelessness among African Americans, Latinx and Indigenous people in Maine.

We must become aware of how much racism permeates human service programs, policies and systems of care. Homelessness is widely recognized as a traumatic experience that creates many other challenges in the effort to find stability. It makes securing employment and housing harder and increases health, mental health and substance use for many. Workers at all levels of local and state government, including those in the homeless service system, make decisions that directly affect each homeless individual or family seeking or needing assistance.

Homelessness is a symptom of a human service system that provides us with clear evidence of racial disparities and an important reminder that maintaining the status quo is definitely not anti-racist. Providers of services to homeless people cannot solve or change the many historical, societal and constantly evolving issues that keep them busy. The homeless service system, therefore, must become educated in the impact of lifelong and race-related trauma, and aware and tolerant of behaviors that may emerge in response to systemic racism.

Homeless services providers are challenged to advocate for policy and resource changes in broader systems. They are required to make a major effort to ensure that a level of skill, treatment, mentoring and staff representation is available throughout the shelter, outreach and service systems. Finally, confronting racism asks the overwhelmingly white administration and staff working in this and all other social service fields to understand white privilege and implicit bias. However, changing racist systems requires more than understanding. It will require all of us to target and dramatically change the institutions and policies that result in greater homelessness among people of color.

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