No Roof over My Head: Silja J.A. Talvi Explains How and Why People of Color Now Represent the Majority of Those Living Homeless in the United States. (Race and Recession)

By Talvi, Silja J. A. | Colorlines Magazine, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

No Roof over My Head: Silja J.A. Talvi Explains How and Why People of Color Now Represent the Majority of Those Living Homeless in the United States. (Race and Recession)


Talvi, Silja J. A., Colorlines Magazine


When Mikala Berbery, an African American woman and single mother, went from earning $21,000 a year to losing her job, her life suddenly plunged into a dangerous abyss of homelessness.

Altogether, Berbery spent two and a half years of her life in the Boston area without a home to call her own, struggling to find shelter for herself and her young son. The seemingly insurmountable challenges she faced trying to climb out of the "hole" of homelessness, explains Berbery, often left her feeling hopeless and despondent over her future.

Yet Berbery was determined not to end up sleeping on the streets and to keep her son in school. She applied for subsidized transitional housing, but was promptly denied because she had found a lob working 20 hours a week, earning just $8 an hour, income considered high enough to warrant a rejection of her application. As a last resort, Berbery moved into a run-down, $65-perweek rooming house with her son. The battles continued every step of the way.

When Berbery took the next step and applied for federally subsidized Section 8 housing after losing her part-time job, she was told she wasn't eligible because she was considered "housed." But Berbery wouldn't rake the situation lying down, and fought for her right to be granted Section 8 housing. On appeal, she won.

"Five years later, I'm still digging out of the trench [of homelessness]," says Berbery, who now works as the coordinator of Boston-based organization Roofless Women, devoted to the issues of low-income and homeless women. "I worry about getting old and what's going to happen to me ... I don't have' bling-bling' champagne dreams; I'm just worried about having a place where I can go to the bathroom and brush my teeth."

Berbery's concerns about long-term housing prospects are shared by the estimated 31 million Americans who lived in an "official" state of poverty in 2000. According to the U.S. Census, a total of 49 million Americans, or roughly one in five people, lived in a household in 2000 that had difficulty meeting basic needs. Most disturbingly, at least three million American men, women and children fell so deeply into poverty--or other difficult life circumstances--that they ended up homeless at some point in the past year.

America's homeless population is anything but monolithic. Surveys of major urban centers reveal that roughly 20 percent of the homeless hold down regular jobs, and that 40 percent are families with children.

The demographics of homelessness have also taken on a significant dimension that is often omitted from the realm of public policy and media coverage: Put simply, people of color represent the majority of the homeless in the nation.

In a December 2001 report released by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, data from 27 cities rallied the nation's homeless population at 50 percent African American, 12 percent Latino, 2 percent Native American and 1 percent Asian American.

"I think of homelessness as a game of musical chairs, where people are competing for scarce resources like affordable housing," says Timothy Harris, director of Seattle's Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project. "People who lose in that game are those who have the odds stacked against them ... and race is one of those variables."

No Job, No House, Facing Jail

Seven years ago before becoming homeless, Berbery recalls, she spent three weeks looking at 30 apartments. With her modest salary, Berbery found only one apartment complex she could afford, and where the managers were willing to let her and her son move in. The color of her skin, says Berbery, compounded the problem of trying to find housing in a largely white suburb of Boston. "You just know," she explains. "You know when that's the thing that's keeping you from getting an apartment.

But, as Berbery readily admits, housing discrimination is a hard thing to prove. In lending practices, for instance, the most recent Fannie Mae National Housing Survey showed that 39 percent of African Americans believe that they suffer from discrimination in obtaining mortgages "all or most of the time," but only a small fraction of these cases ever result in formal complaints. …

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