For most people, when they think of what “homelessness” looks like — an image of a disheveled, mentally-ill person living on the sidewalk in a tent is the stereotype that comes to mind.
But there is no one way to be homeless.
In fact, most families, individuals, and youth are one crisis away from experiencing homelessness. And living in a country as economically and racially unequal as the United States puts Black folks at increased risk for housing insecurity.
Black folks are not the poster child for housing insecurity, despite accounting for 39% of people experiencing homelessness and more than 50% of homeless families with children. However, structural racism, COVID-19 excessively impacting Black folks, and an inequitable housing system that too often rejects, dismisses or exploits Black renters have left millions of folks housing insecure.
It’s easy to get distracted by the idea that sleeping inside of a building or car is the opposite of housing insecurity or even the solution — but that shows the true invisibility of this issue.
With home ownership and rent costs spiraling higher and higher, what if being unhoused looks like the minimum wage-earning barista who makes your coffee every day living out of a car, or the politician running for Congress couch surfing, or the medical assistant at your doctor’s office?
On top of that, being LGBTQ, experiencing domestic violence, aging out of foster care, or being immunocompromised all affect the ability to find stable housing.
The Intersection of Domestic Violence
As a former foster youth and a juvenile delinquent, with no immediate family, Allison Pratt did not know what a stable home even looked like — let alone where to find one. After aging out of foster care, in her early 20’s she married a man in the military who quickly became abusive.
“We are so excited to embark on this journey of being ourselves that we are mimicking the things around us,” Pratt says.
The cycle of experiencing abuse started when Pratt was molested as a child. As a foster youth, bouncing from home to home — and never being taught saying no is an option — made it difficult for her to leave her domestically abusive husband.
“It’s like we see what we’re supposed to do but because no one is properly explaining the foundation of it we’re just kind of going with the flow,” she says. “I thought I was supposed to stay.”
But, the decision to leave or stay became clearer when her husband began sexually abusing her.
“My second child was conceived of marital rape,” she says. “I had the right to say no and getting pregnant made me sick.”
During this time, Pratt was adamant about getting an abortion — but after visiting five clinics over the course of a couple of weeks there was always some reason she couldn’t get the procedure. Initially, she was turned away for not having a driver to take her home after the procedure, then she was repeatedly given an inaccurate date of gestation. During one of her final visits, the clinic did not give her a blood test.
After giving birth to her son at 22, she became more protective of her body and Pratt says her husband became more financially abusive. But, she worked hard to get a job, rebuilt her life, and moved from Texas to Los Angeles, leaving her abuser behind.
At that time, she was still young enough to receive foster care services and got counseling with other mothers who had children through rape. With support around her, she was able to create a somewhat stable life for her children, but things started to change again when she got a new partner.
At first, she says her partner wasn’t violent towards her, but she started to notice similar patterns of emotional and psychological abuse. Now, at 32, Pratt has had a restraining order against her ex-partner for three years — she says he continues to break the order. In October, she took her children and left their home to protect her family.
“That’s why I like to say ‘housing insecure’ because we do have a home, we just choose not to live in that,” she says. “We need a safe space.”
Since she left, Pratt and her children have been living in between places. They lived in an Airbnb for a few weeks, stayed with friends, and in mid-December, she was on week one of a 14-day hotel voucher.
After calling 213 shelters throughout Los Angeles County, San Diego County, and other counties in California she says no one has room for a family of five, or they won’t accept them as most of her children are unvaccinated.
“I noticed it’s been very hard in getting assistance because, like I said, the adult pool is so crowded and people are almost less empathetic,” she says.
According to the Family and Youth Services Bureau, on one single day in 2015, more than 31,000 adults and children who left homes with domestic violence found help in a domestic violence emergency shelter. But, that same day, more than 12,000 requests for services were left unmet due to a lack of funding or staffing issues.
Pratt says people are quick to point the finger at her — like she should have known her ex-partner was going to be abusive, or they downplay the severity of her abuse. But what people often forget is she has no family to turn to for help — something she says folks who didn’t grow up in foster care seem unable to understand.
On top of that, because she doesn’t fit the stereotype of what being “homeless” looks like, those at the shelter have questioned if she really needs help.
“This perspective of us being like thieves or crackheads, or druggies, it’s not all true. I understand that some homelessness is due to mental health, but they should definitely broaden that scope,” she says. “There is this stigma that if you’re homeless, you got to look homeless. I don’t think me, and my children have ever looked homeless.”
Regardless of how someone looks, Pratt says whether they fit that stereotype or not, everyone should be able to receive help and services.
“Why do you assume that all the homeless people gotta look like people at the gas station,” she says of a common perspective people have. “Why do you say all the homeless people have to look like people on Skid Row.”
With bouts of homelessness throughout the past nine years, she decided to run for Congress this year — Pratt lost to Democrat Maxine Waters, but she realized many politicians do not have a lived experience of domestic violence, foster care, or housing insecurity, something she centered her campaign around. With this lack of experience, she says politicians who end up in positions of power do not always have the level of awareness it takes to help folks experiencing homelessness.
Although she is unsure if she plans to run for office again, Pratt makes it clear that although traumatic experiences lead many people into housing instability, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“Even in homelessness, you are not broken.”
The Intersection of Youth
In a 2016-17 national survey, roughly 700,000 minors, or 1 in 30 between the ages of 13-17 experienced some form of homelessness, whether that be living on the street, in a shelter, or couch surfing.
These youth may experience housing insecurity due to family conflicts, the juvenile justice system, the educational system, toxic stressors, gun violence, or trafficking violence.
But Black youth are arguably the most vulnerable to facing housing insecurity when so many young ones are already growing up in a system that was not built for them.
That’s why Los Angeles-based Sanctuary of Hope focuses on stabilizing young people who are in some form of crisis.
Founder and executive director Janet Kelly says they primarily serve Black youth between the ages of 16-25 who are housing or economically insecure and help young people who are being trafficked, are domestic violence survivors, and are expectant parents.
“I saw everything from young people engaging in survival marriages where they would marry someone just because they needed to be fed, or they needed to have a relationship to be prostituted, pimped out on the streets months later. Or enter into abusive relationships or get involved in violent situations that really didn’t help them in the long run,” she says.
As a Black-led organization, Hope’s priority is to have a welcoming and culturally affirming environment specifically for Black young people. For Black youth, there is often a different environmental scrutiny that is experienced — an added layer of “anti-Blackness” — Kelly says. Non-Black youth are afforded additional support and services, while the system is not always so quick to help young Black people who are struggling with housing.
“If you look at it at how even Black youth are viewed, most Black youths are adulted. There is this expectation that they should know and be able to get on their feet and pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” she says.
Kelly says Black youth are often invisible in plain sight — it’s not just the young ones who are living in an encampment, it’s the young people whose parents have died or those who were raised by grandparents who now have a health crisis.
The Intersection of Being LGBTQ
The “majority of people in this country are one crisis away from experiencing homelessness,” Kahlib Barton says. The 31-year-old, who is Black, gay, and nonbinary, is the co-director of technical assistance at True Colors United, an organization focusing on the experiences of LGBTQ youth.
Barton has faced his fair share of struggles — experiencing homelessness was one of them. Barton, who uses he and they pronouns says while attending Prairie View A&M University in Texas between 2009-2012, at 19 he was diagnosed with HIV.
At the time, he lived in a rural town outside of Houston, with no access to a car. It made things difficult for Barton to receive care — which was more than an hour away.
“Honestly, I’m thinking about my morbidity and it’s like OK, I’m just going to end up dying because I was never going to get care,” he says.
Eventually, he dropped out of university and moved to Denver because there were better opportunities to get HIV healthcare. Shortly after, he found a job and was able to receive support and housing services for people living with HIV and AIDS. But when Barton lost his job, he lost his housing too.
That’s when Barton experienced homelessness for the first time.
He had the option to move back to Texas, but it was either no housing with HIV care or no HIV care with housing. According to the Trevor Project, about 26% of Black LGBTQ youth experienced homelessness or housing instability in 2021, with an average of 28% among all youth surveyed.
In his early 20s and living in Denver, Barton got introduced to advocacy and activism for public health and housing.
“I’ve always had this lens of this intersectional approach of public health issues will not be addressed without us addressing housing and that we should view housing as a public health crisis,” he says.
Barton’s bouts of experiencing homelessness did not end there. He moved to Washington, D.C. after a friend said they would help him get back on his feet, but he was not able to receive the support initially offered. Additionally, trying to navigate the healthcare services in D.C. proved to be more difficult.
“I ended up experiencing street homelessness for like a little while in D.C.,” he says.
But one thing Barton makes very clear is, whether he lived on the street or was couch surfing, he remained regularly employed. But like many others experiencing homelessness, being employed did not keep him housed. Barton says oftentimes people have this image of what homelessness looks like and that people are supposed to present themselves in a specific way, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Homelessness can look like a Moncler jacket or Nikes on your feet,” he says. “I consistently kept up — you know what I mean? My appearances were always something that I kept up throughout my whole time experiencing homelessness.”
Maintaining a social media presence never gave people a reason to doubt Barton was struggling, let alone sleeping in bathhouses and between homes. To this day, family members and friends are shocked when Barton shares that he was experiencing homelessness — which speaks to the true invisibility of what being unhoused looks like.
In order to achieve a more righteous and equitable and hopefully liberated world, we really need to focus on identity and understand how these issues impact the intersections of individuals,” he says. “The identities that we have create unique experiences of privilege and oppression and my identities absolutely created unique experiences of privilege and oppression at times.”
The Intersection of Being Immunocompromised
K.A. Lalsingh, a 68-year-old Black and South Asian woman living in Los Angeles has a unique experience with housing insecurity. She struggles with multiple health conditions, including a mobility issue and a compromised immune system — in November of 2016 she was forced to give up her home because she could no longer afford it.
With her compromised immune system, it was important for Lalsingh to stay in a home that could adequately fit her needs. But that wasn’t always possible. From 2016-2021, she says she couch-surfed with friends and family, with some of the homes leaving her feeling “miserable and unwelcome.”
“I don’t like to put myself out with people who don’t want me, but I had nowhere to go,” she says. “It was that or go in the street, and with all my health conditions, I was terrified.”
During the five years, Lalsingh was in unstable and inconsistent housing, she sought out support services to help her find a place — she made calls to local libraries to ask for resources and reached out to organizations that help medically disabled seniors.
But, navigating a housing system with so many holes and cracks in it left her with no other choice but to live in a shelter beginning in September 2021. Lalsingh says she constantly had to battle to receive her Social Security benefits, with case managers and social workers often giving her misinformation.
Life in the shelter was anything but glamorous.
She says she started to notice a pattern of cultural preference and favoritism when it came to helping women get resources in the shelter. Lalsingh says she questioned: “Why did it work for her? Is it because she’s Asian? Is it because she’s white? Is it because I’m Black? What is it that I’m not getting?”
“The overtones of racism come into play,” she says.
Throughout Lalsingh’s interview with Word In Black, she was outspoken about the inadequacies of the government systems in place — systems that are failing to help women get adequate housing.
One example is the California Department of Housing and Community Development mismanaging COVID-19 relief funds for people experiencing homelessness — with the state receiving $316 million under the federal CARES Act, the department did not properly distribute the funds.
“At the shelter level, the broken system is they don’t do what they’re designed to do. They don’t use the money they are budgeted to have, money that is being set back or used for other things,” Lalsingh says. “They get donations and don’t make it available to the residents, all the good stuff they keep. And they carry it to the corporate office.”
With shelters being underfunded, or improperly funded, and many of the folks Lalsingh encountered experiencing mental health issues, it became clear to her how few services were available to those inside. She says some residents were forcibly exited from the shelter she was living in because they had violent outbursts or were unable to control their emotions — something she says indicated how little relief residents got.
“So, people come in with trauma, get new trauma, and exit with trauma — and they end up on the street,” she says.
For the last couple of years, like many people experiencing housing and economic insecurity, Lalsingh has been waiting to receive a housing voucher. Once, she was denied for making $250 more a month than the low-income threshold requirement. Now, after approval, she’s been up against a new challenge: finding a landlord that will accept the voucher.
“I had a landlord who owns 50 or 60 properties say … ‘we can’t accept a voucher, we can’t deal with that element, it downgrades the value of our property’,” she says.
California implemented a new law in 2020 that forbids property owners from rejecting applicants based on their Section 8 housing vouchers, but landlords still refuse to rent to people who have them.
In early December, after more than a year of living in the shelter, Lalsingh was told she would be transferred to a shelter on Skid Row.
“I am immunocompromised, and I have very poor vision, and I use a cane, and I see nine specialists — and you want me to be on Skid Row?” she says of the shelter that planned on transferring her, despite her being weeks away from getting her own place.
On Dec. 10, she self-exited from the shelter. And, after six years of being housing insecure, she says she should be getting keys to her new place soon.