Homelessness and Inequality Across the US

Charity Homelessness Housing Segregation societal change Uncategorized

In a recent news article I read about disputes in the city of San Francisco over the location of a shelter for the homeless. As a physician who started his career in the United States working for Healthcare for the Homeless in Baltimore, Maryland this issue is not alien to me. Whilst services for the poor and disadvantaged do abound in the United States and more than $400 billion dollars of donations annually fund these charitable organizations there is always a challenge when one attempts to build service centers for the poor and most disadvantaged among us. In a way it appears the people of the most charitable nation on earth at least based on dollar terms would just as well pull out their wallets and give away their money so they can avoid having to see those less fortunate than they are.

In political discourse we have a term which every city or town council in this country is very familiar with NIMBY (Not in my backyard). Judging by the frequency of such disputes between city councils and mostly residents, developers and homeowners it appears we only love the poor only if we can keep them away from our neighborhoods. The interesting thing about the San Francisco disputes is the fact that the city authorities are pretty much on the sidelines as different groups of residents are taking to the courts on this issue with money through crowdfunding. This may very well mark a great turning point in NIMBY disputes in this country.

The question that plagues me on this issue is why do we behave in this way. There are many reasons why most Americans do not want services for the underprivileged in their neighborhoods but the most important and the most consistent underlying issue is usually housing value.

In the United States many gimmicks have been used to promote housing segregation by class and to some extent race. Many cities including my own home city of Baltimore have seen white flight at some point in history. In an economic system that is driven by demand and supply when close to 70% of your population have an unwritten rule that discourages them from living or buying property in your neighborhood one can imagine what happens to housing values and the community tax base.

Abandoned homes in Philadelphia

The same dynamic could play itself in another form if homeowners and renters should decide they do not want to live near a homeless shelter. The gradual selling of properties could easily lead to an imbalance in demand and supply and the excess housing stock could only result in a drop in value. Most Americans today unfortunately use their homes as a form of savings account and as such a drop in value does affect their overall net worth.

Blighted building in West Baltimore

The over reliance on real estate especially ones home as a form of investment and its interplay with housing segregation has been blamed for the relative imbalance in wealth accumulation by race and ethnicity. Housing values in predominantly black neighborhoods tend to show only modest gains and rapid gains in such places such as happened in Washington, DC over the past 2-3 decades have been associated with an influx of white Americans to these neighborhoods. The results of these unwritten rules mostly driven by demand and supply means that the gains in property values even as these neighborhoods gentrify tend to accrue mostly to white Americans at the expense of blacks and other minorities. More often these minorities feel pushed out when grocery stores they prefer relocate as their market share drop in the setting of increases in property tax and rental costs.

U Street in DC which is rapidly gentrifying and losing its soul – No Go Go Music – Photo by NCinDC

In the last two decades growing inequality driven mostly by rapid economic growth with most of the gains in income accruing to CEOs and top level executives and venture capitalists has created instability among the middle class. In this situation most Americans lack any significant personal savings and as such any emergency could easily push families and individuals into homelessness.

In this economic climate, all Americans especially black Americans have to be very careful how they handle home ownership.

  • One must be well aware that the home that you live in is not an investment and in some cases could be a liability
  • Those who decides to buy homes must be ready and capable of maintain this for the long haul at least 5 – 10 years or more.
  • One must buy what they can comfortably afford so they still have enough money to save for a rainy day.

Those who follow these very simple rules may stand the chance of benefiting from the modest gains that accrues to homeowners. In the setting of the rapid rise in values that can occur in rapidly gentrified communities such individuals are better placed to old their properties to reap the most maximum gains.

By Dr. Leonard Sowah, an internal medicine physician in Baltimore, Maryland

Feature photo-“Homeless Rough Sleeper” by Deadly Sirius is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


A physician providing primary medical care to patients across the lifespan