Homeless Youth in NYC: Disproportionately Black, LGBT

The Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services has just released a new report most comprehensive study of youth homelessness in New York City in decades was released recently, providing what some say is the first realistic account of one of the city’s most vulnerable and misunderstood populations. This is a subject near to my heart since I do a lot of volunteer work (and, in true sociological fashion, a research project) with these folks. The reason I mention this report here is that it’s both fascinating from a sociological standpoint, and deeply disturbing from a racial justice perspective. From a sociological research perspective, it’s a huge methodological challenge to even count homeless youth because they aren’t easily identifiable (on purpose) and they don’t conform to the prevailing cultural image of what a homeless person looks like. Here’s a relevant excerpt pulled from City Limits:

“One of the things young people are very good at is fitting in. It’s much harder to identify youth homeless on the street,” said Hirsch. She recalled one young homeless person who used to get dressed up to sleep on the subway, so as not to let on that he was homeless.

And, from a racial justice perspective, it’s telling that homeless kids are from “marginalized populations,” again from City Limits:

“One of the report’s most striking findings, say youth service professionals, is the significant overrepresentation of certain marginalized populations among the ranks of homeless youth in the city—particularly those who identify themselves either as black, or as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), or those who have experience in the foster care and criminal justice systems. Almost half of respondents identified as black and close to a third identified as homosexual or bisexual. More than a quarter reported time spent in foster care, jail or prison. ….Additionally, half of the young people interviewed for the report did not have a high school diploma or GED.”

There are a number of things to note here. Perhaps the first and most obvious is the total, systemic failure here of multiple institutions (economic, religious, familial, political, educational, criminal justice). To continue stating the obvious, these institutional failures have the strongest impact on those in society who are the weakest and most vulnerable – young people. In addition, there are lots of ways overlapping systems of oppression are at work here, including racism and homophobia. Unfortunately, the way this report is written it makes it sound like “black” and “LGBT” are separate categories – as if these kids are either black or LGBT – and as I and Adia have written about here before – this kind of “either/or” thinking doesn’t help clarify but rather clouds our understanding of the way oppression works. For my experience working with homeless kids who identify as LGBT here in New York City, they are overwhelming Black and Latino. Often times what this means is that these are kids who are not only pushed to the margins of society because of race and poverty, but they’ve also quite literally been pushed out of their families’ homes and onto the streets because of gender/sexuality, that is, because they identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual or they are gender-non-conforming in one way or another.

In my view, religious institutions have a special burden to bear in perpetuating these overlapping and interlocking systems of oppression. It’s frequently the case that parents who have pushed their children out of the home and onto the streets refer to religious edicts or “God’s will” when doing so, citing highly-regarded religious leaders (even those formerly in the Hitler youth).  Government institutions add to this burden as they refuse to fund places that house homeless LGBT-identified youth, citing the “lack of gender segregated facilities” as a reason. In a facility that houses Black and Latino youth, pushed out of their homes, pushed out of the traditional shelter system (where they often encounter violence based on gender-identity and/or homophobia), and frequently pushed out of foster care for not conforming to gender norms, it’s hard to know what meaningful purpose is served by offering a ‘gender segregated’ facility. (And, indeed, it would be hard to know how to enforce such segregation for people who embody a more complex gender identity than a simply binary of “either/or,” male/female.) So, it’s organizations like MCCNY, part of the world’s largest queer-organization (yes, a religious organization) and one of the rare racially-integrated social institutions in the U.S., that take up the slack here by opening their basement to allow a few kids each night to get off the streets and sleep inside, have a hot shower, and a meal. (Pictured here: an illustration of the disparity between the number of homeless LGBT kids each night in NYC and the number of available beds, photo credit: Jessie Daniels).

The further irony is that the racism, class-based elitism and well-founded anti-religious sentiment among most affluent and white gays and lesbians, makes private fund-raising for homeless LGBT kids that’s housed in a church a decidedly uphill struggle. Thus, kids of color who identify as LGBT face multiple vulnerabilities that are rooted in interlocking systems of oppression. The combination of racism and homophobia pushes many of these kids into further vulnerability for health risks and violent attacks, as this article explains:

“A nationwide study of homophobia in schools found that the majority of GLBTQ youth of color had experienced victimization in school because of either race or sexual identity in the last year, while half reported being victimized because of both race and sexual identity. More than a third of GLBTQ youth of color had experienced physical violence because of their orientation.”

The fact is that racism, poverty and homophobia are damaging. And, these damaging consequences are all the more telling in the lives of homeless youth in New York City.

U.N.: U.S. Racial Discrimination Must Be Remedied

 The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, and just issued some of its Concluding Observations.   Not long ago, I wrote about Canada skipping the UN conference on racism due to antisemitism.

Yet, despite this  criticism the UN Committee is issuing some charges that should be addressed.   In one of their more scathing conclusions, they charge the U.S. to do more to remedy the effects of racial discrimination in housing, particularly following Hurricane Katrina.  The Committee criticized the discriminatory violations of housing rights of African Americans following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The UN report comes on the heels of a call from two UN experts on housing and minority rights two weeks ago for an immediate halt to the demolitions of public housing in New Orleans.  Many community members argue that these demolitions, along with other reconstruction policies, are preventing African Americans from returning to the city. The UN Committee calls for adequate, affordable housing in Katrina-affected areas, and also for the remedying of housing conditions in racially segregated areas across the country.

Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), which coordinated a report signed by more than 60 organizations to the Committee detailing the systemic discrimination against racial minorities in equal access to adequate housing, welcomed the Observations:

“Racial discrimination, both overt and subtle, is alive and well in America today. Viewed against international standards — which consider impact, not just intent — the extent of continuing racial discrimination is staggering. The sub-prime mortgage crisis, which also disproportionately impacts minority families, is exacerbating the problem.”

You can download the UN Committee’s Concluding Observations here.

Whistling Dixie in the NYTimes

Paul Krugman writes in today’s New York Times that despite his newspapers (and other media outlet’s) “tone of amazement” at the protests in Jena last week:

“But the reality is that things haven’t changed nearly as much as people think. Racial tension, especially in the South, has never gone away, and has never stopped being important. And race remains one of the defining factors in modern American politics.”

While Krugman is correct on this point, he errs by failing to recognize the ways in which the racial dynamics he’s attributing exclusively to the South are in fact, quintessentially American. To support this view, he quotes political scientist Thomas F. Schaller who, in his book “Whistling Past Dixie,” makes this assessment:

“Despite the best efforts of Republican spinmeisters to depict American conservatism as a nonracial phenomenon, the partisan impact of racial attitudes in the South is stronger today than in the past.”

Yet, it’s systematic racism — like that in housing — that reveals part of how deeply embedded racism is in this society as a whole. The first suburbs in the nation were built outside New York City, and those suburbs, such as the original Levittown, were built exclusively for whites at the same time that people were rising up against racist segregation in the south. Making racism a regional-disorder is provides an easy out for white liberals who would rather ignore the racism in their own backyard.

Racial Discrimination in Mortgage Lending

The Washington Post yesterday reported on a new study released by the Federal Reserve which details the realities of racial discrimination in mortgage lending in the U.S. According to the Fed’s report:

… minorities received loans with higher interest rates or other increased charges in greater percentages than white applicants did. Controlling for various factors, the report found 30.3 percent of the loans for home purchases by African Americans were higher-cost loans, compared with 17.7 percent of loans for whites. The gap of 12.6 percentage points exceeded the gap of 10 percentage points found in the 2005 survey.

Black borrowers received high-cost loans 52.8 percent of the time when they refinanced home loans last year, vs. 49.3 percent in 2005, the Fed report said. Hispanic borrowers received high-cost refinancings 37.7 percent of the time, up from 33.8 percent in 2005. The rate for white borrowers was 25.7 percent last year, compared with 21 percent in 2005.

The Federal Reserve report coincides with increased scrutiny by Congress of lending practices that contributed to the collapse of the subprime-mortgage market which is having a disproportionate impact on African American and Latino homeowners (but that goes largely unreported in this story). And, while the Washington Post story goes on to note that:

African Americans’ homeownership fell nearly two percentage points in the first six months of this year, to 46.3 percent, compared with a half-percentage point drop for whites, to 75.4 percent.

There is little to no attention to the racial discrimination in mortgage lending on the part of Congress. Perhaps it’s time for Congress to take pay attention? Given that the Democratically-controlled Congress can’t seem to get it together to pass legislation that would stop a widely unpopular war, I won’t be holding my breath to see if they take up the issue of racial discrimination in mortgage lending. Of course, the other point to make about the Federal Reserve point is that it calls into question the kind of story I commented on yesterday in USA Today, that this is a “more tolerant” nation. If survey data reflects less overt racism, yet institutionalized racism is as deeply entrenched as this data suggests, who benefits from this? Arguably, it’s white people who reap the benefits here, both in terms of getting better mortgage rates and simultaneously congratulating ourselves on being more tolerant.

Racism in NYC Housing

Sometimes people have the impression that New York City, because it is a global city and there is such amazing diversity here, is somehow more ‘tolerant’ or less racist than say, Texas, where I grew up. In fact, it used to really annoy me when, back in the day after I finished my dissertation about white supremacy at UT-Austin, people from New York and other points north of the Mason-Dixon line, would say things like, “oh, Texas…that must be a really good place to study white supremacy.” As if racism, white supremacy, and overt discrimination, for example in housing, don’t exist outside the South.

A couple of stories from the New York Daily News, one of tabloids here in the city, make this point for me. First up, all the ‘race-blind’ talk about the financial crisis in subprime mortgages disguises the fact that this is an issue steeped in racism. The news story from yesterday about eight Brooklyn homeowners, all working-class Blacks, who won a huge legal victory yesterday when a federal judge green-lighted their suits against a real estate company accused of targeting African Americans and other minority-group members with predatory lending practices.

The homeowners assert that they were victims of fast-talking salesmen for United Homes LLC, who pressed to close deals on dilapidated homes appraised at grossly inflated values without concern for the buyers’ ability to pay.

Sylvia Gibbons, who contends United Mortgage pressured her and her husband to take out two mortgages to buy a house in Bushwick, is quoted in the story saying, “It’s a nightmare we’re still trying to cope with.”

The second story from the Daily News, this one from this morning, highlights the kind of overt racism in housing that most people associate with the South. And, indeed, an unidentified “police source” in the story is quoted as saying: “It’s something out of the Deep South, or the backwoods, circa 1950,” a police source said.

But this is happening right here in New York City right now. According to the story in the News, Kris Gouden, who is of Guyanese descent, and his family are being harassed by white neighbors have launched a racist campaign to run him out of the neighborhood. Now, there is a constant police presence outside his home in Hamilton Beach and a neighbor has been busted on felony hate-crime charges.

Gouden says that his family was threatened while they were sitting on the deck in their own backyard. A white neighbor attacked Gouden and his family, “He comes back with a baseball bat,” Gounden said. “He said, ‘F–k you, n—-r. You don’t belong in here. I will burn this house. I’ll kill all of you.'”

This happened in a section of Queens known as Howard Beach, where several other racist attacks have occurred. But, rather than look at the way these attacks are connected to larger systems of racism, what I predict will happen here in New York is that people will dismiss it as an “isolated” incident precisely because it happened in Howard Beach.