New Policy Brief: Black and White Disparities in Homelessness

Although Black Illinoisans make up 14% of the state’s population, 30% of Illinoisans experiencing poverty and 59% experiencing homelessness are Black. Using newly available federal data, this policy brief examines racial disparities in homelessness throughout Illinois and provides policy recommendations for addressing them.

The Issue

People become homeless for many different reasons. Contributing factors range from a loss of employment and other economic crises to domestic violence, family conflict, and serious behavioral health conditions. Whatever the causes, everyone experiencing homelessness has one thing in common: the lack of a home.

More people than commonly realized, particularly youth, experience homelessness at least once during their life. For example, the Voices of Youth Count national survey found that one in 10 young adults ages 18-25, and at least one in 30 adolescents ages 13-17, experience some form of homelessness unaccompanied by a parent or guardian over the course of a year.

For people with the most serious problems, such as severe mental illness or substance addictions, homelessness can be a long-term, even chronic, way of life. A recent estimate suggests about one-quarter of all people experiencing homelessness can be defined as chronically homeless.

To end homelessness, we need to create a society where everyone has access to affordable housing. Securing housing, particularly permanent supportive housing for people with a history of chronic homelessness, provides a stable base from which individuals and families can address other issues that have contributed to and been intensified by homelessness.

How Many People Are Homeless In Illinois?

This is a very hard question to answer for several reasons, including that there is no shared definition for homelessness. Some people, understandably, often want to keep their lack of housing private. Some estimates are:

This is one of the most frequently cited numbers come from federally mandated Point-in-Time counts, which is a census of sheltered and unsheltered people on a single night. In 2018, the Point-in-Time count found 10,643 Illinoisans experiencing homelessness, using this narrow definition.

A broader definition of homelessness includes people who are doubled up due to poverty. In 2016, based on U.S. Census data, 164,969 people in Illinois were doubled up.

People at risk of homelessness include people in renter households who are poor and have a severe housing cost burden. In 2016, there were 282,641 people in this situation.

Schools come into contact with students experiencing homelessness; based on federal data, during the 2016-2017 school year there were 52,626 students enrolled in Illinois’ public schools living in unstable housing.

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An Individual Perspective

Larry Gilbert had been a homeless shelter resident in Ottawa almost every year for nearly a decade. With a history of arrest, recidivism, medical problems, and drug addiction, Larry had never managed to secure a place of his own. Determined to break from this cycle of chronic homelessness, Larry showed up to every appointment with Housing Action Illinois member, Tri-County Opportunities Council, until he was accepted into their Permanent Supportive Housing Program. After a few of weeks of searching for an apartment with the help of a specialist, Larry was able to sign a lease for the first time in his life. And now, with restored hope and drive, he managed to furnish his new home almost entirely independently and has never missed a rental payment.

Why Racial Justice Matters

Because of historic structural and systemic discrimination in many areas of basic life, such as housing, education, and employment, racial disparities are pronounced among people experiencing homelessness. For example, in FY 2017, 56% of adults and 74% of children served by state-funded homeless shelters and transitional housing programs in Illinois were African American. Black Illinoisans are eight times more likely to experience homelessness than White Illinoisans.

What Have We Been Doing?

  • We advocated for the creation of the state Homeless Prevention Program, a highly effective program, which has prevented more than 110,000 households from becoming homeless since 2000 through the provision of small financial grants, primarily to pay past due rent or utility bills. In 2019, working with providers and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, we secured $9 million for the Homeless Prevention Program budget, a $4 million increase.
  • In each year’s state budget, we advocate for more resources for state programs that end homelessness and create affordable housing. The fiscal year 2018 state budget includes a nearly $1 million increase to the Homeless Prevention Program, which kept more than 1,200 families housed. The fiscal year 2019 budget, signed into law in June 2018, included a well-deserved $1 million increase for the Emergency and Transitional Housing Program, resulting in total funding of $10,383,700 after many years of flat funding. This will allow the 91 nonprofits that operate the program to address increasing operating costs and/or serve additional people. These preventative programs are also highly cost effective; for example, supportive housing for chronically homeless people reduces average cost by $49.5%.
  • During the course of the state budget impasse, from mid-2015 to mid-2017, we brought attention to the impact of the impasse on state funded homeless service providers and the people they are working to help. We also worked with the Responsible Budget Coalition to successfully make the case that Illinois’ budget problems should not be solved with more budget cuts, but by increasing revenue in a fair manner.
  • We raise awareness of racial disparities in homelessness throughout Illinois and make policy recommendations to address them in our policy brief Black and White Disparities in Homelessness. The brief analyzes federal data and calculates racial equity severity scores to contextualize disparities in each part of our state. Although Black Illinoisans make up 14% of the state’s population, 30% of Illinoisans experiencing poverty and 59% experiencing homelessness are Black.

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housing coupled with case management and other supportive services

living with family or friends