SAN DIEGO — William Keith has experienced homelessness on and off here for the last 20 years.
His latest struggle came at the start of the pandemic. Keith had a federal housing voucher that guaranteed his rent to landlords. But as a Black man, the 66-year-old veteran said, it felt much harder to find housing than for white veterans he knew using the same program.
“Property managers immediately showed me a lot of racial animosity,” Keith said. “They didn’t even want to show me the apartments.”
A concerted national effort has helped reduce the number of veterans experiencing homelessness, said Jack Tsai, research director for the VA’s National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans. That number has been halved since 2010, according to the federal homeless census.
But Black veterans remain overrepresented among that population, a reflection of long-standing discrimination that impacts everything from the racial wealth gap to the ability to find a job. Black people made up around 12% of active-duty military personnel in 2018, but 33% of the homeless veteran population.
Federal programs reducing veteran homelessness fall short in addressing some of the factors that increase housing instability for Black veterans and those from other marginalized communities, such as Native Americans. Black veterans often faced racial discrimination and bias during service, then experience disparities in receiving VA benefits and other social services afterward.
On top of that, Black people who join the military are more likely to arrive at a financial disadvantage, said Shawn Deadwiler, founder of Mission Uplift, an organization to help Black homeless veterans.
“Let’s take me, for example,” said Deadwiler, who grew up in Arizona. “All I saw growing up was violence. I had to fight to get to school every day, to get food every day, to get home from school every day. My deck was stacked against me from day one. I joined the military because I didn’t want to live in the poverty that I was living in.”
Keith, meanwhile, joined the Army in 1974, during a time when he could serve in the military to avoid incarceration. He was honorably discharged.
Although the military is increasingly diverse, its leadership is largely white. The reasons Black enlistees face more obstacles in promotions include historical segregation in the military, lack of mentorship, opportunities to be promoted and racism.
Non-white service members are also disproportionately disciplined. A 2019 Government Accountability Office report found Black and Latino service members across the armed forces are more likely than white service members to be investigated, receive nonjudicial punishments or be court-martialed. Veterans with dishonorable discharges don’t have access to the same VA benefits.
Upon leaving the military, Black veterans face many of the same issues that make all veterans more at risk for homelessness. But housing affordability issues affect them more acutely because of the country’s long history of housing discrimination, said Stephen Metraux, a homelessness researcher at the University of Delaware.
In an expensive market, like San Diego, people with housing vouchers often struggle to get landlords to rent to them. That challenge is even greater when the voucher holders have a criminal record, are unemployed or face racial discrimination.
Metraux said leaving an institution like the military also is a substantial adjustment that most people get through with the support of family. But veterans without a network able to help them and knowledge about resources may face greater struggles that could increase their risk of homelessness.
Kathryn Monet, the CEO of the National Coalition for Veteran Homelessness, said Black veterans may be more likely to have family and friends who aren’t in a financial position to support them when they fall on hard times.
The Department of Veteran Affairs offers many resources to veterans, effectively social welfare programs that can help increase their access to health care, education and housing. And indeed, they do make a difference. Black veterans have higher levels of income than Black civilians. They are less likely to be incarcerated.
But they’re still more impoverished than white veterans and more likely to end up homeless.
The benefits provided by the VA may not be enough to combat generations of racism faced by many Black veterans. There are also disparities in accessing certain VA benefits: Black veterans are more likely to have their disability claims denied than any other racial or ethnic group.
Black veterans were also excluded from benefiting from the 1944 GI Bill in the same way white veterans did — something Congress is only just now considering fixing.
“Even when you put these social welfare benefits in place, at the end of the day you still see disparities,” said Richard Brookshire, co-founder of the Black Veterans Project, a group trying to address racial inequities among veterans.
Tsai, Metraux and Deadwiler said more work is needed to ensure veterans can access their benefits.
During the annual homeless census counts, Deadwiler said, those capturing the data should also ask what benefits and programs homeless veterans are using. That could help them connect with resources they are eligible for but may not be accessing.
Deadwiler and Monet said that more could be done during off-boarding from the military to ensure that veterans have a place to live upon leaving.
“Nobody is really out there asking every service member as they transition, ‘Hey, do you have somewhere to go?’” Monet said.
Brookshire and Monet also said that there could be more targeted solutions for Black veterans’ unique needs. For example, Monet pointed to recent efforts to help homeless veterans who live on reservations, where previously housing vouchers couldn’t be used. Now the VA and HUD are working with tribal governments to build housing for veterans or to help veterans find places to live in already-built units.
Monet said there are also efforts underway to get VA programs expanded beyond veterans who had honorable or general discharge.
Deadwiler said he has been urging members of Congress to push some of these solutions for Black veterans forward, but he hasn’t seen movement toward a solution yet.
“There needs to be more cultural competency in helping Black veterans,” Brookshire said. “There’s wide room for bias and exploitation, and the victims of that are often Black.”
Keith was eventually able to find housing in May 2021 after more than a year of searching with his voucher. He’s been writing to his local congressman and filing complaints with the VA about his experience.
“We’re not just talking about housing,” he said. “We’re talking about disabilities. About education. The institutionalized, systemic racism runs deep.”