Root Shock


By Cathleen Williams, with thanks to Donta Williams and Curtis Freeman

First of a Series on the “Whys” and “Wherefores” of the Houseless Population from Homeward Street Journal 25-3

According to Donta Williams, unhoused African American leader in the Sacramento Union of theHomeless,

 “Resources are very important to getting ahead, to getting back on track. Many African American men are unhoused because they lack necessary job training, and I feel that some type of program for trades needs to be implemented.

You have to have the job experience, you have to have the resources in what you are trying to do. A main barrier would have to be race. I don’t feel we are given a fair shake, treated equally. There’s still racism in America, even when it comes to going and getting a job.”  

Every generation of African Americans, brought or born here, has paid an unbearable price for survival itself. Of course, individuals and communities have also flourished – but this is often despite the price that is paid, over and over, by African Americans just to live, just to raise a family, just to have work and health. While all poor and working people are affected by this system, based, as it is, on private property and profit-driven corporate power, the African

American experience, in particular, is one of “root shock,” a term coined by the late, great African American scholar and activist Clyde Woods of the Los Angeles Action Network (LACAN).

“Root shock” – the very words send a shudder through the body. Today, the number of African Americans in the homeless population is dramatically disproportionate. African Americans account for 40-56% of the unhoused, while they represent only 12% of the population nationwide.  (See, Freedom Now,Why the Silence? Homelessness and Race,” p. 44.) Uprooted over and over, African American families have been stripped of the resources and assets necessary to maintain housing security.

The problem is now impacting more and more people of other ethnicities too, and this is one reason it is more important than ever to understand and address the underlying causes which affect so many people and are at the core of the obstacles to housing security faced by the poor.


To understand “root shock,” it makes sense to start with the shape of our cities, stamped by  the segregation of African American neighborhoods.

The methods of segregation are now beginning to be documented and exposed. African Americans are and were confined to certain areas, and excluded from others, through multiple governmental policies, a racialized system of subsidies and penalties, and deliberately discriminatory financial and real estate practices. Segregation and discrimination were fully accepted and enforced until the 1960’s, when the civil rights movement and federal legislation began to outlaw them.[i]

However, in reality the policies and practices of segregation, as well as their effects, have continued. “This cycle of disinvestment blocked communities of color from the accumulation of intergenerational wealth that flowed in white neighborhoods due to government-supported financial security in home ownership in areas with steady growth of property values.” (See, Federal District Court decision, LA Alliance for Human Rights v. City of Los Angeles, 4/20/21, p. ).

Multiple forms of housing displacement – expulsion – have resulted from this structural racism. In Sacramento, for example, 75% of the city’s diverse communities of color lived in the segregated downtown district west of the State Capitol, the “West End.”    The area was cleared by “urban renewal.” Massive expulsion was justified by the pretext that the area was permanently “blighted” – reflecting the fact that loans for improvement in the West End were systematically denied.

At the same time, white suburban enclaves were constructed with government support, and commuter freeways were built through “inner cities.” This brought about further demolition and expulsion of mostly Black neighborhoods. (See, New York Times, 5/27/21 “Can Removing Highways Fix American Cities?”)

Once “redeveloped” and “renewed,” governmental agencies placed the land into the hands of investors standing to profit.  “The very plans aimed to ‘renew’ communities destroyed existing neighborhoods where communities of color resided.” (See LA Alliance decision, p. 8.) This is still true.

The name of the West End has been forgotten, but, as the federal court found, the segregation of our cities paved the way for present-day expulsion of residents from Black neighborhoods. Property was devalued because of segregation, and in these neighborhoods, schools and services and even street trees were officially neglected and inferior.  These neighborhoods then became especially vulnerable to new corporate and hedge fund investors. (In Los Angeles, for example, two thirds of rental housing is now owned by “speculative investment vehicles.” See, Knock-LA .com 3/10/21)  

The resulting rising rents, driven by speculator-owned housing, victimize millions of poor renters of every ethnicity today. Unaffordable rents cause homelessness everywhere. But African American residents have been impacted most of all. Nearly 40% of Black tenants in California spend more than half their income on rent, a burden exacerbated by the current pandemic, with Black unemployment hovering over 15% by official figures, but estimated to be much, much higher in actuality. (LA Times, 7/19/20 “Amid Coronovirus Pandemic, A Black Housing Crisis Gets Worse”.)

As expulsion from neighborhoods (deceptively called “gentrification”) has intensified, Black homeownership has dropped everywhere — by half in Sacramento County. The foreclosure crisis of 2008 brought increased competition for rental housing and rent increases even as it stripped Black families of their few assets.  (Sacramento Bee, 4/30/17 “Why Most Black Sacramentans Still Can’t Buy A Home Eight Years After The Great Recession”).  Coupled with high rates of unemployment and low wages, housing insecurity and loss have forced African Americans into the street across the country, along with poor people of every ethnicity. 


Donta Williams: “Mass incarceration plays a major role in the homelessness of African American men. African American men are specifically targeted by the police.  I believe a lot of people – they just give up, they don’t have the family support. If you are getting back on your feet after prison, all by yourself, it’s going to be pretty hard, almost impossible to do. Again, you have to have resources. You have to be in contact with the right people, and they have to know what your situation is, because everyone’s situation is different.”

There are many factors relating to rising poverty and homelessness in this country, including the destruction of public housing; the elimination of federal family support and aid; decades of cuts amounting to “organized abandonment” of poor workers.  The loss of living wage jobs as a result of de-industrialization and automation has had a huge impact.

All of these conditions, and more, are foundational to the rising numbers of unhoused people now inundating our cities. But for African Americans, mass incarceration and criminalization on the city’s streets stands out as a major driver of homelessness and housing insecurity. The facts are stark: “In 1950, the incarcerated population was 70% white and 30% non-white, but is now 70% non-white and 30% white. Yet there is no change in the rates of criminality between the two groups. See, Freedom Now, “Learning from Los Angeles: Producing Anarchy in the Name of Order,” p.36.)

“The War on Drugs and its resultant crackdown on African American [men] has been by far the most significant factor in producing the tripling of the US prison population since 1980. In the years 1986-1991, the number of African Americans doing time for drug offenses in state prisons increased by 465.5 percent. Many of these men were first offenders…These spells behind bars produced sharp transitions within each life course: from low wage work to unemployment, from rental housing to hotels or the street, from marriage to solitude or unstable relationships…” [ii](Ethnography 2002 “The Nexus: Homelessness and Incarceration in Two American Cities,” p. 507-508.)

The causal link between incarceration and homelessness is rarely discussed, like Black homelessness itself, but several recent studies report that between 40% and 80% of unhoused men have spent time in jail and prison.  The majority are African American men. It works like this: Incarceration leads to homelessness. Homelessness leads to incarceration.


Incarceration results in being unhoused because it interferes with the family relationships that are essential to housing security. As Curtis Freeman, a formerly unhoused African American who volunteers in providing for the basic needs of homeless encampments in Sacramento, shows one way this happens. “I was in prison. Before that, I was staying with my mom and became her caretaker. Before I got out of prison, my mom died. She had gotten money from one of those “Financial Freedom” loans on the house.” This is the type of high interest equity loan often deceptively marketed to poor home owners, a practice that contributed to the foreclosure crisis.

Curtis Freeman explains, “When I got out of prison, I moved into her house but it was already in foreclosure. I and nobody in my family had that type of money. One day I came back and the locks were changed and I became homeless.  If I hadn’t been in prison, I could have dealt with it better. I could have helped the family.”    

In addition to stressing family ties, prison records and prison-related trauma affects employability. According to Donta Williams, speaking of unhoused men, “You have to have job experience. I feel that some type of program for trades needs to be implemented. A lot of these people don’t have trades. Also, the type of resources that are needed are mental health and case management.”

Interviewing unhoused men in San Francisco, one study found that, “The restrictions, authoritarian micromanagement, and routinized abuse of prison life profoundly alter ‘habitus’ [way of living]…The [prison experience of unhoused men] forces them to relinquish outside values and practices in favor of new strategies for survival…The low tolerance for discipline and authority after prison led [the unhoused men interviewed] to prefer the freedom of street homelessness to the low status and high insult level of bottom-rung work and accommodation in shelters…” (See, The Nexus, above, p. 511.)


Curtis Freeman: “You end up in jail when you are houseless because you use whatever means is necessary to survive. You don’t have family. If you had a roof over your head, you wouldn’t be thinking like that or doing like that.”

Donta Williams: “The police play into us being unhoused because they are supposed to be helping us but instead they target us and don’t even necessarily give us a chance. They are not helping us to get the resources that we’re lacking. They are more hindering than helping by taking people’s property and doing everything other than helping. They pick and choose who they are going to help, when they should be helping everybody.  I thought their job was to protect and serve.”

Police sweeps – warrant checks, arrests and citations for living outside, the confiscation and destruction of possessions, the shattering of the relative stability and neighborliness fostered by encampments – all these law enforcement tactics intensify the mental trauma and physical hardship of homelessness. These types of police “management” also lead directly to incarceration of people living without housing or shelter. “The practical effect of this type of policing…is to continuously circulate houseless people through the jails, making it very difficult to sustain employment or job training.” (Nexus, p. 521).

The consequences of these practices are especially harsh for African Americans, but the overall effects are much broader. “Punishment and exclusion, predicated on [class based] and institutional racism, do not only affect the despised group themselves [that is, unemployed or ex-prisoner African American men] but in practice draw from the much broader skilled and semi-skilled working class, both black and white, multiplying the ranks of the permanently excluded.”


We can stop root shock by grasping the core of the systemic processes that lead to homelessness. We can protect our communities from the continuing effects of structural racism, and in doing so, better the lives and communities of all people. A year after the murder of George Floyd, we can keep gathering the forces to bring about this necessary transformation. Organizing and political engagement are key to holding government at all levels accountable. We can and we will succeed, and as we do so, we will end the continuing flow of houseless people in our cities suffering from dispossession and the after-effects of mass incarceration.

[i] “Red-lining,” which dates officially from the 1930’s, was the nationwide governmental and banking practice of “grading” neighborhoods by property values (“color-coded residential safety maps”), such that neighborhoods where Black and other people of color were concentrated received the lowest, “red” grade, and were classified as “hazardous.” Other practices, such as state-enforced racial restrictions on buying and selling (“racially restrictive covenants”) and realtor discrimination reinforced segregation. As a result, property values have been kept down and these areas continue to be denied home loans, capital investment funds, governmental services as well as resources like good schools, parks and trees, supermarkets and stores.

[ii] Michelle Alexander in her book “The New Jim Crow” brought to light the history and impact of incarceration on housing security, describing it “as a way of reproducing the social relations of segregation without explicit laws relegating different races to different places.” (Freedom Now, “Learning from Los Angeles: Producing Anarchy in the Name of Order,” p.36.)

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