James Robinson, 45, has managed to remain consistently employed since he became homeless in 2018 but has struggled to access housing, a challenge he said he believes is tied to his race. / Photo by Lisa Halverstadt

Blacks made up less than 6 percent of the county’s population but 22 percent of its homeless population according to last year’s homeless census, and regional leaders may soon dig into what can be done about that disparity.

It’s not a new problem. The Regional Task Force on the Homeless has for years documented Black San Diegans’ overrepresentation in the region’s homeless population during its annual point-in-time counts.

A task force analysis of homeless San Diegans tracked in the region’s homeless service database throughout 2018 also found five times as many Blacks were homeless than would be expected based on their share of the population. More recently, the city reports 28 percent of the hundreds who have stayed at the temporary shelter at the Convention Center have been Black.

Now, amid a pandemic that has disproportionately affected communities of color and reinvigorated discussions about longtime inequities facing the Black community, two task force board members are urging the countywide group that coordinates the region’s homelessness response to create an advisory group focused on addressing Black homelessness.

“You have to look at where the disparities are coming in,” said Jo Barrett, a board member who is Black and was once forced to live in her car after losing her home.

Barrett and Sean Elo-Rivera, a City Council candidate and board member, have recently worked with task force staff members to set the stage to assemble an effort similar to a high-profile Los Angeles review of data and possible solutions to Black homelessness two years ago.

San Diego’s task force is set to vote on the proposal at its Thursday meeting.

Elo-Rivera, who lived in his car while he attended law school, said it’s crucial that officials focus more on Black homelessness and pull together a committee mostly made up of Black San Diegans to lead the effort.

“I am hopeful that we can put together a task force that has a very keen eye on those disparities, on the way Black San Diegans are offered services and treated when they are provided services and I do think that it’s very important that the lens be specifically focused on the Black community,” Elo-Rivera said.

If the committee is assembled, Task Force CEO Tamera Kohler agreed that the group itself – rather than the task force leadership – should drive what comes next and seek significant community input.

“It is really important that we don’t drive the work as much as we are in the work and we’re listening to those with lived experience and those who are schooled in racial disparity and equity and inclusion work to really move the work along,” Kohler said.

She said the task force has increasingly explored racial equity issues in recent years with efforts including annual racial disparity reports and a countywide plan to end youth homelessness released last year that includes action steps to support Black youth, who made up 21 percent of the region’s homeless population under the age of 24 in that year’s homeless census. Interviews with Black youth to prepare the report revealed they were more likely to report more traumatic experiences and be involved in the child welfare or justice systems.

Any more in-depth analysis and its conclusions are unlikely to come with simple solutions to a systemic challenge that disproportionately affects Black citizens across the nation.

The federal Housing and Urban Development Department’s latest annual report on the country’s homeless population revealed that four out of 10 people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. were Black per last year’s homeless point-in-time counts. Black residents make up just 13 percent of the nation’s overall population.

Experts say generations of inequity have fueled higher rates of homelessness among Blacks in San Diego County and across the nation.

San Diego is one of many cities across the nation where Blacks were denied housing due to redlining, making many neighborhoods off-limits to would-be homeowners.

Black homeownership rates also continue to trail behind those of their white counterparts. A recent report by real-estate brokerage Redfin found less than a third of Black families in San Diego own homes, compared with 61 percent of white families.

Black families are also more likely to grapple with poverty.

A recent analysis of Census survey data by left-leaning Center on Policy Initiatives noted that the city’s poverty rate among Blacks in the city was 22 percent – compared with just under 13 percent citywide.

Black residents are also more likely to encounter police police enforcement and though prison rates have fallen, they remain far more likely than Latino or white Americans to be imprisoned – and to face challenges in the rental market even if they don’t have criminal histories.

All of those factors can make it more difficult to access and maintain stable housing and thus make homelessness more likely.

For those reasons, the Black community’s disproportionate representation in the homeless population isn’t an accident, said Ricky N. Bluthenthal, associate dean for social justice at USC’s Keck School of Medicine who is among a group of university researchers exploring racial equity issues in the homeless population.

“You’ve basically created a country that systematically disadvantages Black folks, and you have worsened outcomes in that population as a consequence,” Bluthenthal said.

Activist Tasha Williamson, who once slept in her car with her son and has since led an effort to temporarily house dozens of homeless San Diegans in hotel rooms during the pandemic, agreed.

“I think that the system – not just government agencies but all systems, especially those run as a white power structure – (has) been designed to disproportionately impact Black people and that it’s not a shock to anyone that Black people are disproportionately impacted. This has been going on for generations, and we have no more time for those in power to listen,” said Williamson, who is Black. “We need them to act because these disparities are peoples’ lives.”

James Robinson, who has been homeless since 2018, is living that reality. He said he has struggled to secure housing despite consistently remaining employed since he was forced onto the street.

Robinson, 45, said he believes he has lost out on multiple opportunities once potential landlords discover he is Black.

Just before the coronavirus stay-at-home order in March, Robinson said a North Park Airbnb operator stopped communicating with him about a spare bedroom Robinson hoped to rent after he shared a photo of his ID upon request, revealing his race.

In another case, Robinson said a man who had posted on Craiglist about an opening on El Cajon Boulevard near Interstate 15 seemed eager to welcome him when they exchanged text messages but was non-committal once he heard Robinson’s deep voice on the other line.

Robinson, who has recently cobbled together cash to stay in hostels in Pacific Beach and Little Italy, said he is trying to stay focused on remaining employed in hopes he can eventually find more permanent housing. He has an interview on Thursday for a second job he could work on nights and weekends to make more money.

“I’m so determined to make this work,” Robinson said. “I’m determined not to lose.”

Kohler said data the task force has for now has suggests Black San Diegans being aided by homeless service providers are placed in permanent housing at a rate that exceeds their share of the population.

A task force analysis released last year found that Blacks made up 34 percent of homeless San Diegans who were placed in permanent housing in 2018 though they comprised 28 percent of the homeless population tracked in the region’s homeless service database.

Still, Kohler said more fact-finding must be done, particularly when it comes to exploring how to prevent Black people and families from becoming homeless in the first place.

Robinson, Williamson, Kohler and Barrett fear those who are already disproportionately vulnerable will fall into homelessness at increased rates as the economic devastation of the pandemic continues. They hope the community can rapidly come up with solutions.

“We’re going to have a tsunami of people who are going to lose their place and become homeless at no fault of their own,” Barrett said.

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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