White Privilege & Housing and Homelessness

Last week I was in St. Louis. The tension was palpable. It was a community on edge, awaiting the grand jury decision regarding Officer Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown. This week, with the decision in Ferguson making world headlines, the result has been many talking about reforms, righting injustices, addressing inequities, making adjustments in society so that complex social issues that involve race are considered differently.

Legacies of injustice continue. In the United States it is the painful history of slavery and the treatment of African-Americans and maltreatment of Native Americans too. (A “civilized” nation that celebrates Columbus Day?) In Canada and Australia it is the painful history of colonization of indigenous peoples and failed, unjust attempts at assimilation through the likes of residential schools. (In Canada there is still something called the Indian Act – legislation that governs engagement between the state and what is allowed for a group of people, to put it over-simply).

If you are not white, you are disproportionately going to be represented in a homeless population in the United States, Canada and Australia. This isn’t a coincidence.

If you are not white, you are less likely to be a homeowner. You are less likely to have financial assistance from family to purchase into the homeownership market. If you are not white you are less likely to meet financial risk assessment thresholds to purchase a home. If you are not white and you do own a home, the value of your home is, on average, less than that of a white person. This isn’t a coincidence.

If you are not white, you will be incarcerated at a disproportionately higher rate. The biggest investment made in housing is the “big house”. This is not a coincidence.

If you are not white, you are less likely to get appropriate mental health assistance or assistance with a substance use disorder. This is not a coincidence.

If you are not white, you are more likely to make less money than white counterparts, unless you are working in a unionized environment. If you are not white, you are more likely to not be in a management position. This is not a coincidence.

If you are not white, you are less likely to finish high school and less likely to complete a post high school degree. This is not a coincidence.

Did I – a white, educated, straight, male – make more not white people homeless or decrease their homeownership rates or incarcerate people in a disproportionate manner, deprive others of mental health assistance or substance use recovery, pay an unequal wage or decrease educational attainment of people that are not white? No. But that doesn’t mean I am not part of the problem.

If I want to be part of the solution, I have to acknowledge that I am definitely part of the problem. Try as I might, my white privilege makes it impossible for me to truly empathize beyond a cerebral exercise in our current society because the likelihood of success is stacked heavily in my favor. I didn’t ask for any of this. It is a privilege bestowed upon me solely by being white, and I will never know what it is like to be not white. Do I give up in trying to understand wholeheartedly? No.

I need an education different than what multiple university degrees have provided me. I need to ensure that all I do is rooted firmly in the tenets of justice, and not one of pity or sympathy or charity. I need to speak truth to power and talk about the thing that others sometimes don’t want to talk about, beyond just “Have you noticed that most of the people in your shelter are African-American?” (or aboriginal) to “What are we going to do about the disproportionate number of African-American (or aboriginal) people needing housing?”

When I have half-heartedly attempted these discussions in the past it is usually met with responses like, “It took generations to get to the point where things are this bad, and it is going to take generations to get out of this situation.” Or, “I know bad things happened in the past. I didn’t do it. It wasn’t my fault. When are they going to get over it?” Or, “The problem is that they don’t have fathers in their life or role models to set them straight on how to make a living and take care of themselves.” Or, “I almost feel better for them when they are incarcerated, because at least then you know they are getting fed and access to health care.” Or, “You know it’s because they really can’t handle alcohol.” Or, “They’ve never had an apartment because of how their people are. We are just setting them up for failure.” Or, “Of course there are more of them homeless” – as if all of these statements normalize reality so that no action can be taken – and are accepted on face value as truths.

I will take these inflammatory comments head on from now on in all situations.

See, these aren’t African-American problems. They are American problems. These aren’t Native Canadian problems. They are Canadian problems. These aren’t Indigenous Australian problems. They are Australian problems. It isn’t someone else’s problem. It is our collective problem.

I am not against discussion, but we aren’t going to talk our way out of this. I am not against education, but we aren’t going to train our way out of this. What I am for is action.

I have said many times that it is pointless to gather race or ethnic data if you aren’t going to do anything with it – if it is just an academic exercise or to gather descriptive data then it is pointless. Maybe it is time that we find the point and act on the point.

Economic injustice and racism are siblings…perhaps even twins. I am opposed to anti-poverty strategies. I am all for increased wealth strategies. I will not pity people for their poverty. I will not advocate just to increase benefit rates. I will rally against why it exists in the first place.

I will work to reform any system that calls itself a “justice system” when it systemically removes people’s access to employment and housing, and does so in many instances for a lifetime. If we can’t agree that time served is, um, time served – then maybe we need to start calling it the racially unjust punishment system.

I will advocate that we intentionally work to decrease stigma of mental illness and substance addiction with people of color. I will no longer accept the narrative of “it’s cultural” thrown around by white people in avoiding getting people the assistance they deserve.

And one more thing.

I will never vote for the candidate wanting to lower my taxes. Why? Because this is the manifestation of white privilege at its finest. We can’t have less money in the coffers of government and expect more or better interventions to address these systemic and systematic issues. Lowering taxes will not decrease homelessness. Lowering taxes will not increase available housing. Lowering taxes will not result in better education. Lowering taxes will not improve human services. A vote for the candidate wanting to lower taxes – who will give you the mantra of better service at less cost or efficiencies as propaganda – is a vote for ongoing injustice, more racial inequity, and more white privilege.

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong

11 Responses to “White Privilege & Housing and Homelessness”

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  1. Donna Williams says:

    Very enlightening, you vocalize issues others dance around.

  2. Kathy Roberts says:

    I couldn’t agree more; and white male privilege is different than white female privilege. I’ve witnessed the legacy of the inhuman treatment of African and Native American’s first hand. It’s truly obscene. We can’t undue what’s been done, but we can do better. And I believe in Karma…

  3. Jen says:

    OK! Time to unleash my comment on this. Do I think homelessness is an issue? Yes, for sure. People don’t choose to be homeless-without a home, but they do choose to use drugs and frolick in their addictions thus loosing their home. Some just don’t give a rat if they live on the street. No rules and no responsibilities. Some quite like evading the government and not paying taxes. Some just don’t care and it shows when they are rehoused causing thousands of dollars of damage. Why don’t you look at the great work “White” people are doing to help end homelessness? And look at the thousands of dollars of damage that are being caused by people who have been homeless? Why don’t you talk to the landlords? Find out how this “Homeless” problem is raising our rents, we are loosing good tenants all because we took a chance to house to make a difference to house the homeless and were royally duped. Your right this is a problem! A big problem! And when rental companies begin to say NO housing programs it will be even bigger problem! I think that will be OK For you though. You will continue to make more money off the homeless. I mean that’s what your doing right? Everyone blog, conference, agency you represent does make money off this problem? Your right though, you do have to acknowledge you are part of the problem cause you really are$$

    • Casey says:

      Jen, no one just wakes up one day and decides to be an addict. Addiction is a symptom. It’s an attempt to solve a problem; an attempt to cope with pain and trauma that seems unbearable and unsurmountable. People experiencing challenges with addiction are often some of the bravest and most insightful people you will ever meet. Yes people make choices that may not align with the choices you or I would make. Does that give us the authority to judge their circumstance? People make mistakes. Does that mean we should just discard them and not help them try again?
      I’m curious how you KNOW that “Some just don’t give a rat if they live on the street. No rules and no responsibilities.” Have you ever slept on the street Jen? Ever have someone look at you like you are a piece of trash, or worse, like you don’t exist at all? Ever had to carry all of your belongings around with you everywhere you go, never feeling safe, not getting proper medical care, never being able to sleep soundly, having to sell your body just to avoid being sick, or to buy something to eat…Have you ever walked in those shoes? Even if you have, your experience would not be the same as the person beside you and certainly not give you the right to say “Well, this guy’s had his chance and he blew it. He’s not deserving of any more help.”

      Housing people actually saves LOADS of money.

      Be kind. Everyone is fighting a hard battle.

      • John Claybaugh says:

        And while I was never an alcoholic and have never touched drugs I became homeless.Jen, most Americans would become homeless within two months if they lost their job. I lost mine without cause. So go, oh never mind. I don’t talk that way in public.

        John, formerly homeless veteran

  4. Kevin says:

    Blown away once again – you always say it so well

  5. Kevin says:

    Jen – you are not taking into consideration the motivations behind the behavior and that is where the truth is found.

  6. Sandy McKechnie says:

    Thought provoking. . .the African-American, Native-Canadian, Indigenous-Australian comment struck a chord with me. When will we start deleting the hyphenated cultural identity from our vocabulary and just be citizens of our countries. One can be proud of their cultural heritage while still being loyal and true to their country. A difficult statement to measure, but I would venture to say that those who do not identify as hyphenated-Canadians etc. likely fare much better than their hyphenated counterparts, I can’t help but think that those holding on to their hyphenation is a barrier to becoming all that they can be.

  7. Myrna says:

    As a previous Landlord, I am well aware of many housing programs to fight “Homelessness”. I am also VERY aware that when we house people who have been homeless for years that they don’t always do very well in an apartment setting. As a previous Landlord and owner I have seen the struggle that this population goes through. I also see the thousands and I mean thousands of dollars of damage they caused in many buildings. Appliances damaged, holes in walls, fires, parties, escorting out of their residences, high traffic, threatening other tenants, police involvement, other “Good” tenants moving due to the constant issues. So basically tell the landlords what a great job this is to “Help”. Landlord agrees and 4 months into the lease its hell on wheels! People don’t want to support this because many are getting burnt out, tired, and don’t have the time or money to cover costs for damage as this is an ongoing issue. Why should I rent out an apartment just to risk it being destroyed? I want good tenants. Tenants who respect others and where they live. I don’t see how this is a racial issue. This is a money grab to house people in an apartment and hope they do well. That way the Government who funds these programs numbers will go up and more money in their pocket. Good job Canada!

    • John Claybaugh says:

      Hmmm. That;s hilarious. The only “trouble” I’ve caused in my new digs is letting other homeless people stay in my apartment too often. I’m only allowed to have overnight guests seven mights a month.

      On the other hand, I totally destroyed a few apartments that I rented before I ever became homeless. I wonder if the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless has the problems you speak of in their buildings? What do actual statistics show? I don’t take much stock in the words of one individual. I base my life on facts.

  8. Cynthia Campbell says:

    Oh buddy this is WAY too long!!!!