One of the countless health, economic, and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the sharp rise in homelessness among Latinxs.
In 2022, on any given night in the U.S., there were over 130,000 people who identify as Latino experiencing homelessness, up 8% from 2020. In California, the numbers are even more staggering, as the total number of unhoused Latinx Californians increased by 22% in the same period.
Yet, as a community—many Latinx seem to believe that homelessness could never happen to us. Strong family and social support are often cited as the main reasons for why that’s the case.
I’ve certainly heard as much in my own community in East Los Angeles, despite rising rental costs and displacement. Indeed, more than two thirds of Latinxs polled in 2021 said they were “not too worried” or “not at all worried” about experiencing a period of homelessness in California.
For a long time, homelessness has been thought to be something that only happens to people who are lazy or to those who live with untreated mental health and substance use issues. It’s not until more recently that the discourse has begun to cite the lack of affordable housing as the primary reason for rising homelessness rates across the country, especially in expensive places to live like California.
So how can it be that a group—one that is more likely than other race/ethnic groups to struggle from a lack of affordable housing, have low incomes, and be adversely impacted by weak tenants’ rights—can be strangely silent (or perhaps muted) on homelessness, a significant issue across the country and in California, where 25% of all Latinxs in the U.S. live?
It’s a disservice to ourselves and the communities already working tirelessly to address and end homelessness to stay on the sidelines. For decades, Latinxs have led and supported movements across the U.S. that have secured rights and protections for millions of Americans, often inspired by and in coalition with indigenous, Black, and multi-ethnic communities. From education (Mexican American parents sued California school districts challenging school segregation by race/ethnicity in Mendez v. Westminster which set important precedent for Brown v. Board of Education in 1954), to labor (throughout the 1970s Mexican, Filipino, Arab and other immigrant communities worked for the legalization of undocumented workers and union rights against INS raids), and the U.S. Voting Rights Act (supported efforts to expand it to require language assistance at polling stations which benefited Native Americans, Asian Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Latinxs)—Latinxs have been in the thick of monumental and history-making change.
To be sure, there are many pressing issues that the Latinx community must contend with like immigration and economic recovery post-COVID, and yet we must start to join calls for housing justice because we all need a safe and stable place to live. We can’t thrive without one.
In the past, family and friends were able to help weather setbacks (or bouts of bad luck), which depressed rates of homelessness despite higher rates of poverty and housing insecurity among Latinx communities. We bought into the “Latino Paradox ,” and many continue to rely on this outdated notion that we are somehow insulated against falling into homelessness. However, now it’s more often the case that our social networks and informal support systems are unable to help anymore.
Research shows that Latinxs are more likely than other ethnic groups to experience first time homelessness. Additionally, COVID-19 put a heavy toll on the financial, physical, and mental health of the Latinx community—leaving fewer resources to spare.
What recourse do we have when our friends and family are also struggling to keep a roof over their head?
There is more that we can and should do, debemos ponernos las pilas, and begin to own the issue of homelessness. We can start by funding more Latinx-focused research to understand how homelessness touches subgroups within the Latinx community (Latinxs are not a monolith), exploring ways that the health care system (80% of U.S. Latinos had some form of health insurance) can partner with homeless response system to connect patients with housing services, and advocating for more affordable housing and preserving what already exists.
Let us not return to the apathy, silence, or whatever it was before the pandemic that kept us on the sidelines of the homelessness crisis. It’s up to us, now, to do the work in coalition, and make the change for future generations.