Dr. Lenore A. Tate | Special to California Black Media Partners
Numerous studies have confirmed that homelessness and behavioral and mental health problems affect African Americans at disproportionate rates in California and around the United States.
On a very primary and personal level, homelessness affects an individual’s mental health. Looking at the data: approximately 30% of people who are chronically unhoused have a mental health condition, about 50% have a co-occurring substance use problem and 42% have a disabling condition such as a developmental disability, HIV/AIDS or injuries from combat such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
In California, 43% of the Black Californians interviewed reported that someone close to them has experienced homelessness – a rate much higher than any other racial group in the survey, according to a survey conducted by the California Health Care Foundation,
Black women in particular – are at a higher risk for exposure to mental health stresses.
“A variety of circumstances put Black women at high risk for mental and emotional stress – economic insecurity, responsibilities of caregiving, neighborhood violence, lack of social support and physical illness or disability,” reads the website of the California Black Women’s Health Project.
“As a result, many are plagued by tension, anxiety, worry and fear. Because of the powerful and complex links between the mind, emotions and body, chronic states of stress and anxiety can have dangerous and sometime fatal, health consequences. In addition, the daily struggles of coping with racism and sexism further exacerbate mental and emotional stress,” the write-up on the website reports.
When these intersecting issues go unaddressed, they can compound and adversely affect individuals.
Black people make up 13.6% of the population in the United States and account for approximately 21% of those living in poverty. Blacks in California comprise 6.5% of the population but are more than 40% of the homeless/unhoused population! In fact, in most shelters, food banks, drop-in centers for the unhoused, the majority of those served are from Black or Brown communities. Black people outnumber White people 12 to 1 among the homeless population.
California has more unhoused than any other state. Seventy percent of California’s homeless are living on the streets and in tents, etc. while in New York, data reflects that only 5% of their homeless are living on the streets.
California has instituted several policies and passed a series of laws to address the mental health and homeless crises. Last year, during his annual budget proposal, Gov. Gavin Newsom connected the challenge of solving homelessness in the state with inadequate approaches the state has taken so far to address mental health.
Among different approaches taken to address the state’s mental health challenges and, consequently, the homelessness crisis is the passage of the Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment Act (CARE) Act in California last year. This law, which Newsom signed into law, establishes CARE Court, an alternative to the Criminal Justice System for people who are mentally ill.
But more needs to be done if we are to address the mountainous monumental challenges of our mental health and homelessness crises, particularly as it affects minorities. The resources and programs the state has made available have simply not kept up with the demand for services.
California was the first state in the country to propose housing as a human right under Assembly Constitutional Amendment 10 (ACA-10) (Bonta 2020). This amendment would ensure shelter for the unhoused and recognize that housing as a human right. However, after more than 70 years, housing still appears to be treated as a commodity rather than a human right.
Across the board – from prevention and early intervention to strategically providing housing and chronic care — we need to do more in the Golden State across the board.
Medical professionals need to be provided cultural sensitivity training and more needs to be done to destigmatize mental health care in the Black community. Social support systems must be strengthened, and more resources need to be committed to outreach and research so that both care and information can be targeted to serve the needs of Black Californians.
We need a combination of solutions working at the policy level, within the health care delivery system and among our social and community networks that attack the problems from various angles.
Committing to funding, decreasing hurdles in zoning, working collaboratively with public and private sectors, and creating space for ingenuity would be steps towards solving these crises. Recognizing that Black and Brown communities, children, families and seniors are unhoused as well as those that carry the weight of mental illness, leads us to act and consider prioritizing vulnerable populations of unhoused.
We must utilize all our available resources so that every Californian will be afforded the right to have housing and a ‘home’ and adequate mental health care, allowing for security, safety, and comfort.