What the Moms 4 Housing Movement Reveals About the Homelessness Crisis

In an act of civil disobedience—and out of the need to secure a safe space for their children to live—members of Moms 4 Housing, a collective of unhoused mothers in Oakland advocating for housing to be seen as a human right, had settled into a two-year vacant home in West Oakland in November of 2019 with the goal of raising national awareness of the no-end-in-sight housing and homeless epidemic in California. Last week, armed police from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office came in the dark hours before dawn to evict and consequently arrest the single Black mothers.

The optics were chilling: men in riot gear with AK47s drawn stormed into a home where homeless Black women and their children were seeking shelter in the cold, wet winter months. The images from the scene challenge us to examine how race and gender inequality are embedded in the DNA of our homelessness epidemic.

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Housing is a racial and gender justice issue. Nationally, about 60 percent of families that are unhoused are single-mother households, half being Black single mothers. In California, a state which saw a 16.4 percent rise in homelessness from 2018 to 2019 and has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the nation, close to 40 percent of the homeless population is Black, even though they only make up 6.5 percent of the state’s population.

Despite these numbers, however, most of the conversations and solutions to ending homelessness centers mostly around the availability of low-income housing. This singular focus misses the point and does not address the issue at its root.

Homelessness is more than just an affordable housing stock issue. Solutions to our housing and homeless crisis need to address the institutionalized racism and sexism that result in alarmingly high rates of homelessness among Black single mothers. 

It is no accident that we see such high levels of homelessness for Black women. Our homeless crisis is a direct result of the economic and housing policies and practices that created massive racial and gender wealth inequality. Redlining, increasingly punitive social welfare programs, a lack of comprehensive paid leave policies and our criminal justice system all contribute to racial and gender wealth disparities.

Moms 4 Housing demand that we see housing as a human right that everyone deserves, regardless of race, gender or economic standing. They understand the inherent connection between economic security, wealth and housing. Solutions they advocate for (and subsequently won) include buying vacant properties from the real estate companies that own them through programs like the Oakland Community Land Trust, helping them build their wealth.

Wealth—the value of everything you own in addition to your savings minus all your debts—is what families rely on in times of emergency. It is the safety net needed to pay for an unexpected car repair, medical emergency or loss of income; without it, families are increasingly at risk for not being able to meet their very basic needs like housing and food when income fluctuates, as it does in an increasingly volatile economy for low-wage workers.

These workers are disproportionately women of color. Overall, the median wealth for single Black women is $200, and just $100 for Latinx women, compared to just over $15,500 for single white women and close to $29,000 for single white men. This is not just a trend—and things are not looking any better for the Millennial generation. A recent report, Clipped Wings: Closing the Wealth Gap for Millennial Women, tells us that single white men have six times more wealth than single Black millennial women and 3 times more wealth than Latinx women.

Housing in America is built upon that history of embedded racism. In her new book, Race For Profit: How Banks and The Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Home Ownership, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor masterfully articulates how federal disinvestment in housing and an unchecked private real estate industry directly paved a path to a high share of Black women being unhoused today—from Oakland to New York.

We have the resources to eradicate homelessness. We just need the political and public will power to understand the problem in its entirety by acknowledging the racism and sexism that drive it. Multi-pronged solutions that embrace and support grassroots organizing, provide wrap-around services and help address racial and gender wealth inequality is the way forward.

Politicians and policymakers created this mess, and now we have to demand that they take responsibility and fix it by taking the lead of impacted groups like Moms 4 Housing and ensuring solutions are targeted toward communities who are suffering the most.

About

Jhumpa Bhattacharya is Vice President of Programs and Strategy at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development in Oakland. You can follow her on Twitter @Jhumpa_b.