Academic journal article Social Work

Comparison of White and Nonwhite Homeless Men and Women

Academic journal article Social Work

Comparison of White and Nonwhite Homeless Men and Women

Article excerpt

Although reports on homelessness agree that people of color constitute the majority of the homeless population, there is a curious absence of discussion about differences in their experience of homelessness based on race. According to Cohen and Thompson (1992), "It is noteworthy that the 320-page [American Psychiatric Association] task force report on homelessness devoted merely two sentences and no analysis to the disparity between the numbers of homeless people of color and homeless whites. It has remained for other social scientists to examine the links between racism, poverty, and homelessness" (p. 820).

The racial composition of the homeless population is apparently changing. Homeless people of previous generations were predominantly older white men with alcohol problems. More recently the homeless population has been flooded by younger members of nonwhite groups and by women with families (Rossi, 1990). Among today's homeless population, nonwhite racial and ethnic groups are now heavily overrepresented (Burt & Cohen, 1989; Rossi, 1990).

Two studies of homeless people have reported data analyzed by race, but neither presented data separately for men and women. First, Roth and Arewa (1988) found that black homeless people in their 81 percent male sample were younger than white homeless people, had a somewhat higher educational level, had been homeless for shorter periods, and were less likely to be transients. The explanations for homelessness given by the black respondents were primarily economic, especially unemployment, even though they were better educated than the white people in the sample. The white respondents more often reported psychiatric symptoms and psychiatric hospitalization, alcohol problems, and a history of being incarcerated. Koegel, Burnam, and Farr (1988) did not observe more major mental illness in white people than in nonwhite people in a 95 percent male sample, although the white men had marginally higher rates of alcohol problems.

Homeless people are an unusual population because people of color represent the numerical majority and white people are the minority. No one can assume that the experience of homelessness of white people is the same as that of people of color or that the differences between white and nonwhite men are the same as differences between white and nonwhite women. Examining the experience of homeless subgroups by race, separately for each gender, to determine if the subgroups have special circumstances setting them apart from each other can provide useful information for the design of appropriate interventions. To better understand the unique circumstances and needs of these subpopulations, this study investigated the experiences of 900 white and nonwhite homeless men and women in St. Louis.

Methods

Sampling

The sample was drawn from all of the overnight and daytime shelters that serve the homeless population in the city of St. Louis, as well as locations on the street and other public areas where homeless people were known to congregate. For this study subjects were considered homeless if they had no stable residence and were living in a public shelter or in an unsheltered location without a personal mailing address (on the streets, in a car, in an abandoned building, or in a bus station). Subjects staying in inexpensive motels were also included if they had been there for less than 30 days. Marginally housed persons such as those doubled up with friends or relatives or living in single-room-occupancy facilities were not included in the sample.

All 14 of the night shelters for men and all but two of the 13 night shelters for women, all day centers, and both rehabilitation programs agreed to cooperate with the project. Participating programs included temporary shelters open only during winter months, drop-in centers and daytime programs, several long-term programs designed to provide rehabilitation for homeless men with substance abuse or other emotional or physical problems, and general overnight shelter programs. …

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