'It's a cycle': the disproportionate toll of homelessness on San Francisco's African Americans

Vivian Ho in San Francisco
Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When Tracey Mixon walks out her door in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, she is more likely to meet another black person than in most places in the city.

The Tenderloin is where many of the city’s homeless services are centered, making it a hub for the unhoused as they seek help. In a city where the black population teeters between 5% and 6%, 37% of its growing homeless population is black. “They sleep outside of my building,” Mixon, 49, said.

“They’re people I’ve known for years. They went from having places to live to being out out there on the streets. With me living in the Tenderloin, I see a lot of these people all the time and it hurts for me to see so many black people out there.”


In a state where a housing crisis has given way to a surge in homelessness, a disproportionate number of those experiencing housing instability are black. In Los Angeles, 37.5% of the homeless population is black, while in Oakland, where 70% of the homeless population is black, whole homeless encampments are dedicated to black and Latinx people.

The disparity is reflected nationwide. Although black people made up 13.4% of the overall population, according to the latest US census data, 39.8% of all homeless people were black.

Mixon joined a group with the Coalition on Homelessness on Thursday, going from office to office in San Francisco City Hall to bring attention to this racial disparity during Black History Month. Just nine months ago, Mixon was homeless too, along with her nine-year-old daughter. For almost a year, she said, she and her daughter lived in shelters, hotel rooms and on the couches of family and friends.

“It was tough,” said Mixon, who is now a peer organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness. “I made sure she was in school every day. I made sure I was at work every day. Just because we were homeless, I didn’t want our routine to be stopped.”

More and more throughout California, the homeless find themselves in similar circumstances as Mixon and her daughter: holding down jobs, making a decent living, going to school – just not able to find an affordable place to live.

In the office of the San Francisco lawmaker Rafael Mandelman, Miquesha Willis broke down in tears talking about her current situation.

Willis, 32, makes $30 an hour at her construction job. But she and her two-year-old son are homeless, staying with her mother on good days and scrambling to find shelter on bad days.

“It’s a cycle, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” she said in an interview. “My wages are OK, but it’s not enough for San Francisco. It’s not enough for market-rate rent. It’s too much for below market-rate rent. I’m still trying to increase my wages to beat homelessness here. It’s crazy.”

In cities like San Francisco, black communities are getting pushed out as rent prices get jacked up. Between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, the black population fell by 19% in San Francisco and almost 23% in Oakland. Black residents are forced to move farther inland to places where housing is cheaper, such as Antioch and Stockton – even though for many, their jobs remain in the city.

Willis tried moving to Antioch but couldn’t make the commute work. Her job required her to clock in before public transportation began running on some days, and her car broke down, making it impossible for her to get to work.

Like so many people her age, Willis is questioning what she wants to do for a living – if it would be worth it to finish college, to try starting her own business, to switch careers. San Francisco made its name this century as the hub for the latest tech boom, where anyone with a startup idea could come and achieve their dreams. But Willis has found that San Francisco is only a welcoming place only for some, for those who can afford the privilege to fail.

“There are people who are trying to make things happen for themselves and trying to grow in their career and make something happen for their families,” she said. “This is one of the highest-paying cities. Why are so many people struggling here?”