Homelessness and Intersectional Discrimination: The Roles of Ethnicity, Race, and Gender

A 2015 study conducted by Frontier Psychology found that “homeless people as a group are seen as neither competent nor warm,” by the general American population. These views elicit prejudices such as disgust and fear, leading to negative treatment of the homeless. While all individuals experiencing homelessness face stigmatization, the intersectional relationship between factors such as ethnicity, race, and gender influence how each homeless individual experiences everyday life. Negative stereotypes surrounding these particular factors can make individuals more prone to discrimination, thus increasing their chances of becoming homeless. Additionally, these factors can make a homeless individual more prone to discrimination; this includes acts of violence committed against the homeless, and difficulty securing a job or housing. 

According to the Center For Intersectional Justice, “intersectionality describes the ways in which systems of inequality based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, class, and other forms of discrimination ‘intersect’ to create unique dynamics and effects.” For example, if a woman experiencing homelessness is being discriminated against, it would be impossible to claim that the sole cause of the discrimination is misogynistic. Her gender and living situation have an interconnected relationship that affects how she experiences her day-to-day life. 

Most, if not all, individuals experiencing homelessness experience a great amount of stigmatization. It is commonly believed that drug addiction and mental illness are the primary causes of homelessness, thus evoking the general feeling of hostility towards those unhoused. This often results in anti-vagrancy ordinances that seek to remove homeless individuals from public areas in order to limit their visibility, disruptiveness, and chances of interacting with the housed American population. Additionally, individuals experiencing homelessness do not have the ability to meet basic hygienic needs, making it even more difficult for them to obtain social approval.  

These general stigmatizations affect the homeless population as a whole, but racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes impact particular groups of homeless individuals in unique ways. Stigmas surrounding the dangerousness, competency, and work ethic of particular groups of people result in discrimination. That discrimination may lead to homelessness, and/or worsen one’s experience on the streets. 

A 2021 study published in the Journal of Social Distress and Homelessness explored the relationship between the rates of racial/ethnic discrimination and homelessness. Native Americans appear to be the most prominently affected, “with discrimination based on ethnicity doubling the odds of homelessness for this group (relative to Whites).” This relationship, interestingly, was relatively similar between African Americans, Latinx, and Whites. For Asians/Pacific Islanders, the relationship between racial/ethnic discrimination and homelessness was negative. These findings highlight the often overlooked discrimination faced by Native Americans, and the consequences when it comes to the discrimination. The history of oppression forced relocation, and genocide continues to have a negative impact on this group today. Therefore, it is fundamental to identify the different ways in which each racial/ethnic group is discriminated against and understand how that particular type(s) of discrimination can lead to homelessness in each respective group. This information will allow lawmakers to create viable, effective solutions to homelessness, as there is no ‘catchall’ solution to the issue. Homeless Native Americans will need a different solution than homeless Whites, as each group experiences homelessness differently. 

Gendered discrimination also plays a major role in a homeless individual’s day-to-day life. According to the journal Deviant Behavior, qualitative research has shown that “homeless men are given less access to supportive services compared to homeless women.” The general American public tends to view homeless men with less sympathy, reflecting traditional gendered expectations that men should be able to care for and provide for themselves. As a result, they are not offered as much help as their female counterparts. Additionally, men experiencing homelessness are often viewed as more accountable for their situation and are viewed as more dangerous. This perceived dangerousness leads to social distancing: the desire to avoid homeless men due to fear. As long as the general American public continues to view males experiencing homelessness in this way, these unhoused males will continue to suffer and face high levels of discrimination. Data shows clear gendered discrimination within the homeless population: Men make up just under half of the United States population, but 60% of individuals experiencing homelessness are men, as are 70% of the unsheltered homeless. 

There are clear patterns in the relationship between homelessness and race, ethnicity, and gender. However, adequate action has not yet been taken to address the diverse needs of these specific unhoused groups. It is fundamental to research the intersectional relationships that affect discrimination and homelessness in order to create viable solutions to the issue. There is no ‘catchall’ solution to homelessness, but subcategorizing specific groups of people- such as African American men, Native American women, etc.- will enable us to identify more specific causes of homelessness and the reasons that these individuals have difficulty getting off the streets. 

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