For 582,462 people in the United States, homelessness continues to be a devastating issue. Yet, women and particularly single mothers of color face additional hardship. Existing at the underrepresented intersections of gender, racial and marital status marginalizes them even further. Black single mothers are left to navigate through the homelessness crisis alone—with children and without adequate assistance.
At Housing Up, Black single mothers and their children are the overwhelming population we serve. Even on a national level, 60% of people experiencing homelessness in families with children are women. While motherhood is difficult on its own, bringing in gender, racial and marital status disparities into the context of the homelessness crisis exacerbates the difficulty of finding safety and stability.
Safety issues arise when we review the alarming rate of homeless women who have experienced domestic violence. Among single mother-headed families we serve at Housing Up, at least 30% of them have experienced domestic violence in their household. To escape this dangerous home environment, homelessness is often the only option. More than 80% of homeless mothers in the United States have experienced domestic violence throughout their lifetimes.
Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women. Financial barriers and lack of affordable housing prevent women from accessing safer living conditions, resulting in forced relocation and forced eviction from the home. Traumatic living conditions such as physical or sexual assault afflict 92% of homeless mothers in the United States. Limited affordable housing opportunities keep single mothers at the mercy of their spouses or families.
Among the homeless population in the United States, the Black community is disproportionately overrepresented. Despite making up only 12% of the total US population, they account for 37% of people experiencing homelessness, and half of the Black community experiencing homelessness are members of families with children. These racial disparities only further widen the gap for Black single mothers.
According to sociologist Mathew Desmond in his study, “Eviction and Reproduction of Urban Poverty,” his investigation into inner-city Black neighborhoods revealed that Black women account for 30% of evictions despite representing just 9.6% of Milwaukee’s population. Because Black women face elevated rates of evictions, homelessness remains a persistent issue for them and their children, especially since Black single mothers consisted of one-third of households in Milwaukee’s eviction court. This uncertainty and instability make it difficult to find and maintain affordable housing, inhibiting future socioeconomic opportunities.
The struggles of being a single mother—particularly a Black single mother—experiencing homelessness subjects the family to remaining trapped in the cycle of intergenerational poverty.
Compared to 6% of married couples, 30% of single-parent households live in poverty in the United States, demonstrating a link between family structure and socioeconomic status; among single-parent households, single mothers are more likely to be poor than single fathers. These financial burdens serve as a detriment to the possibility of single mothers trying to defeat homelessness, poverty, and food insecurity.
In the United States, of the 11 million single-parent families with children under the age of 18, nearly 80 percent were headed by single mothers; they remain at the greatest risk of homelessness. The children growing up with housing instability and economic uncertainty endure the repercussions of these hardships later in life. Children who experienced poverty in their childhood are more likely to be poor within early and middle adulthood, emphasizing the difficulty of breaking out of this cycle. Compared to their white counterparts, Black children are more at risk for living in poverty.
Although programs like Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) aim to benefit single mothers, more assistance is needed to tackle food insecurity, financial instability, and housing inaccessibility. Empowering single mothers, like the women in Housing Up’s programs, requires us to develop programs that provide revitalizing and sustainable solutions to these issues.
Connecting single mothers with women-centered housing or shelters, like our friends at DC SAFE do, will offer a sense of safety—especially for those who experienced domestic violence at home. Access to such a space lessens the fear of being assaulted and helps women to recover in a secure community. In addition to healthcare services, counseling services and support groups should be a priority to ensure that women maintain their physical health and mental health after enduring traumatic experiences.
Among single mothers experiencing homelessness, racial disparities continue to push Black single mothers further on the margins of society. Understanding the history of redlining, exclusionary zoning, and income discrimination informs us about how to implement equitable solutions. Because of the lingering repercussions of these discriminatory policies, moving forward in the housing affordability crisis requires us to take these barriers into account to properly serve underserved populations at the intersections of gender, racial and marital status.
To ensure that the cycle of intergenerational poverty does not persist, moving single Black mothers and their children out of economic hardship must remain a priority. Gaining access to childcare and education/job assistance will initiate more economic security. With the ability to take advantage of academic and career resources, single mothers experiencing homelessness can have the opportunity to build sustainable futures for themselves and their families.
Every mother and child experiencing homelessness deserves safety, shelter, and security. Understanding homelessness as a single mother means exploring what it is like living on the margins of motherhood. By doing so, we can center their stories, making them the cornerstone of the housing affordability movement.