‘It’s constant questioning:’ Black families disproportionately represented in Sacramento’s unhoused population

Airrea Craven and her two daughters have secured shelter through Saint John’s Program for Real Change after experiencing homelessness for three years. (Photo courtesy of Saint John’s Program for Real Change)

By Sterling Davies

Airrea Craven, 24, has just secured a hotel with government funds for her and her two daughters to stay for the week, and while their clothes are washing in the sink, she opens one of the few dollar-store warm-up meals that she has portioned out for tonight’s dinner.

Homelessness has been a factor in Craven’s life since her childhood, but when her daughter, now 3 years old, was born, these struggles resurfaced. Prior to having her first daughter, Craven was living with her father, but being unable to find a stable job, day care, and housing to support the two of them, her once stable housing accommodation was no longer available to her. 

Throughout the years, Craven has moved between different shelters, hotels, and cars to keep her and her children safe and warm, but pressure and stress continue to mount knowing that each solution is only temporary, and the possibility of living on the street inches closer. “Every day is just battling,” Craven said. “Where are we going to go? What are we going to do? How are we going to eat? It’s constant questioning.” 

The rise in Sacramento County’s unhoused population has become a growing concern, and with the economic downturn spurred by the pandemic, more Black families and children are left struggling to find the resources to find adequate housing.

Between 2019 and 2022, Sacramento County’s homeless population grew by nearly 70%, an increase that disproportionately affected Black people. While 11% of Sacramento’s overall population is Black, 31% of the local homeless population is comprised of Black individuals. Additionally, 50% of homeless families are Black, which means that Black families are three times more likely to face homelessness than white families. 

Lucia Vega, program director of the Mustard Seed School, a private emergency school for unhoused kids in Sacramento, spoke about the rising numbers of homeless families and how COVID-19 has affected this upward trend. 

“We were open during the pandemic,” Vega said. “And now that we’re back to normal, our numbers are growing … and we’re starting to see more families come to Loaves & Fishes in need of services.”

A program of Loaves & Fishes, Mustard Seed School provides free education and resources for children who are experiencing homelessness while their parents or guardians can access essential services through the rest of the nonprofit organization. Vega noted that during the peak of the pandemic, the number of children and families that came through the school was low, possibly due to more families receiving COVID assistance packages and aid from the government. 

Julie Hirota, CEO of Saint John’s Program for Real Change in Sacramento, expressed a similar concern with the long-term effects of the pandemic. Saint John’s, which provides in-house shelter and resources for women and children facing homelessness, remained open during the height of the pandemic but is currently facing its largest capacity. 

As of December, 31% of the children being served at Saint John’s are Black, with an additional 52% being multiracial, according to Hirota. Hirota noted that many of the families currently in the program were receiving COVID-19 housing assistance packages, but the termination of this additional source of income has exacerbated the struggle to afford housing. 

“There was a little bit more housing assistance during COVID. We are starting to hear from women who are going through maybe more of an eviction-type situation or can’t afford next month’s rent,” Hirota said. 

Vega said that lately, it has been significantly more difficult for families to be placed in shelters. As of July 2023, shelters operated by Sacramento County are controlled by 2-1-1, a program under Community Link Capital Region that provides assistance, information and referrals for the county. Due to this shift, other organizations such as the Mustard Seed School cannot directly advocate for their clients to seek housing within shelters, which has caused 3 month-long wait times or longer for families to be placed in shelters, according to Vega. 

Vega reflected on her personal experience with homelessness as a mother and noted how the situation has drastically changed. “When I was homeless 13 years ago, I was able to walk in and say, ‘I need help. I need to get into a shelter. What is there available for me?’ And I was admitted to two [shelters] in the same day.”

Craven, who has now found shelter through Saint. John’s Program, notes that one of the larger difficulties is finding housing that accommodates her children and is still affordable. 

“I feel like we have all these homeless people who are looking for homeless assistance when we’re not making anything available for [them],” Craven said. “We’re making homes and apartments that are two or three times the rent [they can afford]. What can we muster up to just even afford that?” 

Craven said she’s noticed the effects homelessness has had on her children, a 3-year-old and a 5-month-old. “You have children depending on you. … During that transition, my kids were not happy. I can honestly say they were not happy,” she said. “Just feeling my emotions and knowing ‘Oh, mom’s a little upset.’ Living in hotels or staying outside in the cold all night, my kids were not happy.”

While Craven has received assistance from the government, she said it has been extremely limited and sparse. During her three years of being homeless as a parent, the government has only assisted her twice, once when she became homeless and the second a year later. During these times, the government gave her $65 a day for 16 days, which was split between paying for a hotel and meals. Being a mother of two children didn’t provide her with extra assistance either, so she had to split the amount allotted between the three of them. While the support from the government does help, Craven said that it’s only a temporary solution and isn’t enough to help get someone on their feet and out of homelessness.

In order to get families like Craven’s sheltered, the first step is to create more places for families to stay. Vega expressed that by allowing programs such as the Mustard Seed School to directly advocate for their families and have more control in placing their clients in shelters, the growing wait times can be reduced and more families can be supported. 

By creating not only more shelters and housing, but options that factor in families with children and the support needed to find stability in other aspects of life such as jobs, education and health care, more homeless families can find adequate housing and transition out of temporary shelters, creating more availability for those who are still unsheltered.

As the number of Black families continues to be disproportionately represented in the unhoused population, it is imperative that the needs of children are factored into housing and shelter solutions.

“Our responsibility is to help these kids,” Hirota said. “If we don’t take this responsibility seriously, it’ll continue and it’ll grow.”

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and James B. McClatchy Foundation. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

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