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Deyanira Nevarez Martinez on the Latinx Paradox and Homelessness

  • Deyanira Nevarez Martinez
  • February 28 2023
  • PC123-2023

Deyanira Nevarez Martinez
Deyanira Nevarez Martinez

Official measures of homelessness seem to indicate that the Latinx community is less affected than most other minoritized racial groups. But this aspect of what is called “The Latinx Paradox” might in fact be due to the extent of homelessness in Latinx communities being obscured by other factors. In this episode, Dr. Deyanira Nevarez Martinez shares her research into the nuances of Latinx housing precarity, and why understanding the Latinx experience of homelessness is vital for effective public policy and human services provision. Dr. Nevarez Martinez is an Assistant Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Michigan State University and a core faculty member in Chicano Latino studies. She is also an IRP Emerging Poverty Scholar.

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Judith Siers-Poisson [00:00:05] Hello and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I’m Judith Siers-Poisson. For this episode, we’re going to be talking with Dr. Deyanira Nevarez Martinez about the concept of the Latinx Paradox and why it’s important to understand and address the complexity of Latinx homelessness. Dr. Nevarez Martinez is an assistant professor of urban and regional Planning at Michigan State University and a core faculty member in Chicano Latino Studies. She got her Ph.D. at UC Irvine in urban and environmental planning and policy, and she’s also an IRP emerging poverty scholar. Deya, thanks so much for joining us today.

Deyanira Nevarez Martinez [00:00:49] Thank you for having me.

Siers-Poisson [00:00:51] Let’s start by defining homelessness. How do U.S. government agencies tend to define it?

Nevarez Martinez [00:00:57] Right. So when it comes to definitions of homelessness, there are specific definitions. For example, HUD defines homelessness as an individual or family who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. So meaning that this these are families or individuals who have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place that is not meant for human habitation or they’re living in a publicly or privately operated shelter designated to provide temporary living arrangements, or they are exiting an institution where he or she has resided for 90 days or less and who resided in an emergency shelter or a place not meant for human habitation immediately before entering the institution. This institution could be a hospital, justice institutions or jail or prison, those types of things. So that’s a very specific definition of homelessness that gets used by HUD and several other agencies that deal with unhoused individuals.

Siers-Poisson [00:02:00] So that seems quite narrow. I’m guessing that housing advocates might define it a lot more broadly. Who’s left out of those very official definitions that you just shared?

Nevarez Martinez [00:02:11] Yeah. So there’s lots of folks who are getting left out from these official definitions of homelessness specifically. I work with the Latinx community and one of the things that that has happened historically, but has really become an issue that we’ve seen during the pandemic and as the housing affordability crisis gets worse, is folks who are doubling up in homes. And it really became a problem during the pandemic because, you know, especially in the Latino community, these were our frontline workers. And then you had severe overcrowding in these homes and you had this community ravaged by COVID-19. Right. And so this is a big chunk of the community that gets left out when we are employing such narrow definitions of what homelessness is.

Siers-Poisson [00:03:03] And I want to get more into that extreme overcrowding and doubling up. I want to talk a little bit first to kind of set the stage about what we know about how different racial groups are experiencing housing precarity, homelessness in general. Is it proportional to their numbers in the general population?

Nevarez Martinez [00:03:24] So not necessarily. There are communities that are disproportionately affected by homelessness. So for example, African-Americans are 13% of the general population, but more than 40% of the homeless population. American Indian and Alaska Natives similarly are a small share of our general population, but a significant share of our unhoused population. And so with Latinx folks, the numbers when it comes to unhoused folks are smaller than our general population numbers, right? But one of the things that folks like myself are arguing is that we actually don’t have an accurate count of how many Latinx folks are experiencing homelessness, because homelessness is much more nuanced than this narrow definition that we keep using. Right. And so we know how many Latinx folks are experiencing maybe literal homelessness that fit this narrow population. But we don’t know to the extent that they’re experiencing this other phenomenon that we’re calling doubled-up homelessness. A colleague of mine, Molly Richard, did a study in 2022 that estimates that millions of people could be experiencing this. And so while the numbers we have show that there might be underrepresentation in this community, we’re arguing that we actually don’t know how many people are experiencing this.

Siers-Poisson [00:04:51] Well, And those policymakers and people who are deciding on how to allocate resources, they’re looking at this and saying, oh, you know, the Latinx population, there’s this paradox, right? When you look at their overall their education levels, their income levels, immigration status, we would expect them to be more homeless. And they’re not saying that because they’re looking at that one very separate set of numbers. So that Latinx paradox is almost seen as like a positive for the community. But in fact, what your research and others research is saying is that it’s actually cloaking what the real numbers are.

Nevarez Martinez [00:05:37] So the Latinx paradox is really something that came out of epidemiological research and public health research in the 1980s. And it’s really an argument that says that the Latinx community is not as affected by their economic marginalization as they should be, right? So they perform better than we think they should be based on the incomes and education attainment and all of these things. Right. And so it started in like I stated, in epidemiological research related to life expectancy, but since then has been extended to other issues like teenage pregnancy, asthma, other respiratory conditions, education and even homelessness. And so what these scholars are saying is, you know, based on where the community is living, how much money they’re making and what education they have, they’re actually doing better than we think that they should. And that’s not untrue. These studies, you know, I’m not calling into question any anything. What scholars like myself are saying is that, yes, that might be true. And one of the things that happens from this is that the community gets lauded as being, you know, resilient and good for them. And that’s great. But it also precludes policymakers from actually doing something to make the situation better because they’re not doing as bad as they could be. And so, you know, they’re resilient and you know that that’s fine. And so what we’re saying is actually, absolutely, the community is resilient. And, you know, that’s amazing and that’s great. And thank God that they are, because who knows where we would be if they weren’t. But that shouldn’t preclude us from actually putting policy into place to help in in these issues. Right. And so as it pertains to homelessness, researchers have noted that Latinx folks and African-Americans share similar risk factors, including higher poverty rates and all of this stuff. But we put a lot more money or resources into homelessness in the African-American community than we do in the Latinx community. And that’s one of the things that we’re wanting to address with this type of research, are kind of looking at the definitions of homelessness, maybe realizing that it’s more nuanced than how narrow we make it, and when we have a more accurate count of how many people are actually experiencing this phenomenon of doubled-up homelessness, homelessness in general, or housing precarity, that we can a lot more resources to help these communities.

Siers-Poisson [00:08:15] And it seems like one of the aspects of that Latin paradox that gets pointed to is that there’s an image of Latin households being multigenerational more commonly than other racial groups. Is that accurate?

Nevarez Martinez [00:08:27] So multi-generational housing is something that the community absolutely does. You know, I am Mexican-American myself, and growing up there was always, you know, a compadre, a comadre, a tía, a tío coming and staying with us for that amount of time and then maybe going off. And My grandmother lived with us long term until her death. And so multigenerational housing is something that we absolutely do. The thing that we are doing now, though, is conflating multigenerational housing with extreme overcrowding. Right. So having your tía, your tío, coming to stay with you or living with you, even if it’s permanently for a while, or having your grandmother and your grandparents living with you permanently is one thing. But having an apartment, a two- or three-bedroom apartment with 40 farmworkers living there is not multigenerational housing. That’s something completely different. It’s extreme overcrowding and it’s very dangerous, as we saw during the pandemic, where we kept seeing folks in this community in extreme overcrowded conditions getting sick, especially because these were and are our frontline workers.

Siers-Poisson [00:09:42] In your IRP seminar, you talked about how those living situations are so difficult, and especially for children. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Nevarez Martinez [00:09:54] Yeah. All right. So one of the examples I gave was an apartment in the Central Valley that was found to have 40 farmworkers living in this home. And when I say this, people are like, oh my God, that’s not even possible. How do you how does that even happen? Well, one of the things that people are very innovative, people come up with the ways to make things happen, right? And so people sleep in shifts. Half the folks work in the evening. Half of them work during the day and, you know, they switch out and use the sleeping areas. But what becomes really difficult for the children in these households is that they end up getting things like urinary tract infections and things like that because they’re really the bottom of the of the hierarchy. Right. So who gets priority to use the restrooms? People who are coming from work or leaving to work. And so they’re really the end of the priority list. And so they end up having to hold it for a really long time. They end up having to wait on using the facilities for a long time and end up with certain health issues. And so it’s not a good situation for folks. And obviously there’s a very big difference between that situation and living with your grandmother or, you know, And so those are I one of the things that I’m trying to do with my work right now is kind of disentangle these two things because of that Latinx paradox of like framing that community as super resilient and oh, you know, they find strategies to make sure that their family members don’t become unhoused. Which obviously we do in having your grandmother and your tía or maybe your cousin. And that’s different than having 30, 40 people in one house, one apartment. Right. And so kind of disentangling these two things so that we could really get to the core of where it is that we need to insert ourselves and help individuals.

Siers-Poisson [00:11:51] So we’ve been talking about the issue of how the real extent of Latinx homelessness is obscured by some of these other factors. But then there are also some barriers to accessing traditional homeless services that are particularly relevant for the Latinx community. Can you talk about some of those things that that prevent people in the Latinx community from accessing what is available?

Nevarez Martinez [00:12:18] Yeah. Right. So there’s a lot. So first of all, it’s even knowing that these some of these resources exist. Then there’s things like language barriers. So a lot of our services are given and the forms are only in English and many in our community might need those forms to be available in Spanish or sometimes even indigenous languages that aren’t available. Then there is legal status. This is probably the biggest one affecting the community. So there are definitely lots of services that they’re not even qualified for that they, because of that legal status, they don’t qualify for, so they’re not able to access them. If there are any that they are able to access, many folks are scared to access them because they don’t want to be seen as being a drain on the system, things like that. They think that maybe it will affect them down the line if they ever are able to fix their status or they just simply don’t want to call attention to themselves and get deported, which is another fear that folks have. Right. And so that’s probably the biggest barrier.

Siers-Poisson [00:13:36] And you also, in your seminar said something that really stuck with me, that even if an individual has a status that allows them to access these services, I think the phrase you used was that they default to the reality of the most vulnerable person in their household. So say a child or a young person might have citizenship, but they have a parent who does not. And so they might hesitate, like you said, to bring attention to their household, to their family.

Nevarez Martinez [00:14:07] Yeah. So in mixed status households, this is very common, right? So you may have, it could even be a family that the majority of the individuals in the family have status. But if one person in the family, if the dad doesn’t have status or the mom or the oldest sibling doesn’t have status, then they would not go looking for services because they don’t want to put that person in danger. You have spillover effects of their legal status onto the mixed-status family household. And so that legal status is probably the biggest barrier. But then there are others, like in farm working communities where the majority of our farmworkers are actually U.S. residents or citizens. The fact that they move so much for their work is also a barrier for them accessing some of these services. Some of these services take a long time. You have to sign up for waiting lists. And so by the time that you might come up on the list to get a voucher or get whatever service you’re searching looking for, it might be time to go back to Texas, for example, some of our Michigan or Wisconsin folks, or to go back to Arizona for the crops there.

Siers-Poisson [00:15:17] And I’m also guessing that because we’ve been talking about how the Latinx experience of homelessness often doesn’t fit into those pretty narrow definitions of being homeless, that if there’s any need to prove that you need these services, the folks that are in those unaccounted-for situations might not be able to produce that.

Nevarez Martinez [00:15:41] Yeah, right. So if we’re defining, you know, homelessness so narrowly and you go and you look for services and you’re saying, you know, I need services for housing because and these services are for unhoused people, would that person in that apartment with 40 people be eligible for this? It’s a question, right, because they’re not sleeping in a bench on in a park or they’re not sleeping in their car. Right. They are sleeping under a roof. And so all of these things get really complicated when we’re trying to define what homelessness looks like, and especially because the way that homelessness and housing precarity manifests itself in this community is very different than the way that we imagine homelessness to be a lot of times.

Siers-Poisson [00:16:29] And how do the people in the Latinx community who might find themselves, you know, sleeping in their car or maybe couch surfing, how do they see themselves? Do they consider themselves homeless?

Nevarez Martinez [00:16:42] Yeah, this is a really good question because it’s something that I, and I know my collaborators, sometimes struggle with as well, because unfortunately, in our country, you know, homeless is a stigmatizing label. Right? And we also don’t want to go into a community and give them a stigmatizing label when they may not use that for themselves. Right. And what we have found, I think, so far is that they may not always, you know, identify themselves as homeless, but they do know that they are experiencing something that is not normal or not okay or not the way it should be. And so they’ll use language a lot of times, like “in transition,” you know, because they understand that this housing situation is not the way that housing should be. And so there is something there. And there are I think as the housing affordability crisis gets worse and more people are having to live in housing, precarious arrangements, people are, I think, using the word unhoused or homeless more than they were previously. I think they’re understanding their living situation in those terms more than they were previously. But even those that aren’t understand that there’s something that is not the norm or the way that it should be.

Siers-Poisson [00:18:09] In your seminar, you shared the story of a couple of sisters, and I thought it was a really good illustration of that being in transition, but not necessarily being ready to say that they’re homeless. Can you share that story with us?

Nevarez Martinez [00:18:25] Yeah. So these two sisters, they are they are nannies in Orange County, California, in Newport Beach, which is one of the most wealthy communities in Southern California, and probably the United States. There’s a lot of wealth in this community. They are so they babysit or they do their nanny work during the day and at night they go and they sleep. They have different places where they will go to sleep. Great. So they have a brother or a sister in Whittier. And they actually have several siblings in the L.A. County area where they can go and spend the night. But they jump around from place to place and they kind of gauge when they’ve stayed too long at one place, and then they’ll go to their other siblings house and then do the same thing. But they’re really in a situation where if they were to get into some kind of disagreement with any of their siblings or, you know, their siblings, which one of the things that did happen is that one of their siblings had to their children had to move back into their house because of the housing affordability crisis as well. And so there was a little bit less room. And so the time that they could spend there was a little less than it was before. But if anything were to happen where they would get into a disagreement or another family member had to move in, they would have no place to go. They also, though, didn’t see themselves as being unhoused, but they’re in a very precarious situation. Right. And so these are the types of folks that we’re talking about when we’re thinking about folks experiencing this doubled up homelessness.

Siers-Poisson [00:20:09] I want to make sure that we get to the policy and service provision implications of your work. So I’ll throw a big question at you. In what ways does it matter if the true extent of Latinx homelessness is hidden from view?

Nevarez Martinez [00:20:23] Well, it matters because it precludes policymakers from allotting resources to solve this problem or to help this problem. Right. And so if we don’t see it, whether it’s willful or because it’s invisible, then we’re not allocating resources to do anything about it. And that’s the biggest problem right now. And that’s for me and my collaborators, Dr. Chinchilla and Molly Richard, that’s one of our biggest priorities to make sure that we are inserting this issue into the conversations, into the policy conversations, so that when we’re doing resource allocation, we’re able to allocate resources into this problem that we’re currently not.

Siers-Poisson [00:21:09] So clearly, there would be a big implication for people who are in this situation, who are living in extreme overcrowding or doubling up or in this precarious situation. But it also seems that this has a lot of impact on the communities where these folks are living or working, because, you know, it’s going to have a ripple effect.

Nevarez Martinez [00:21:33] Absolutely. It’s going to I mean, these are in these communities. These are our neighbors, right? These are our frontline workers. These are the folks that when we go to the grocery store, they’re helping us bag our groceries and they’re the cashiers and folks that when we go to the bank, they’re, you know, our tellers and they’re picking our food and making sure that we are still able to feed ourselves. Right. And so it’s going to have a ripple effect there in that our neighbors are going to hopefully have a better quality of life. But then also we’re going to be living in safer conditions. And if there is another pandemic, another outbreak of anything, it’s also going to help the rest of us by not having people who are getting sick at home and bringing it out into our communities. Right. So there’s lots of different aspects to this. Also, more people hopefully, that are able to get into safe, sanitary housing in our communities and less maybe poverty concentration. There’s lots of different things it would compromise.

Siers-Poisson [00:22:39] It seems like if there’s a mismatch of where people who are experiencing homelessness are versus where the services are, that that’s going to create an imbalance too, and that some communities might almost be a magnet for people who do need these services because they’re not necessarily where the people are.

Nevarez Martinez [00:22:59] Right. Right.

Siers-Poisson [00:23:02] So what are some policy solutions that could be implemented to address the issue of levels of Latinx homelessness and doubling up that are likely much higher than the official count show?

Nevarez Martinez [00:23:13] Yes. So, you know, as a researcher who works with unhoused folks and policy around this issue, there’s really only one thing that solves homelessness, and that’s housing. So really what we need is more accessible and affordable housing for more people in our community. And that’s a really tricky issue because we don’t have that at any level, right? We don’t have that for the folks who are at the you know, at the literal sense of homelessness. Right. Like those folks who are on the sidewalk sleeping in the park. We don’t have housing for them, but we also don’t have housing for anybody else. And so that’s really where we need to focus, our policy focus should be on getting more attainable and accessible housing for all.

Siers-Poisson [00:24:09] And as we wrap up, what further research would help to continue to shed light on this particular issue.

Nevarez Martinez [00:24:16] Yeah. So, you know, personally, one of the things that I want to do with this research, I’m a qualitative researcher, right? I really want to dig into that question of how are individuals making sense of this? Like what are the strategies that they are doing. Because like I said, you know, even in the research we’re doing now, there is a sense that folks understand that things shouldn’t be this way, right? They may not call themselves unhoused or homeless, but they know that they’re in transition or they’re in this period. And I’d really like to dig into those questions and kind of see what strategies they’re employing and how they’re experiencing the policy so that we can make policy that is more humane for folks.

Siers-Poisson [00:25:01] Well, Deya, thank you so much for sharing your research with us and we’ll be looking forward to following your future work.

Nevarez Martinez [00:25:07] Thank you for having me.

Siers-Poisson [00:25:08] Thanks so much to IRP emerging poverty scholar Dr. Deyanira Nevarez Martinez. She joined us to talk about her research into the concept of the Latinx paradox and how that affects policies and services designed to address homelessness. You can watch her December 2022 IRP seminar presentation over on our YouTube channel. The handle for that is at IRP underscore UW. The production of this podcast was supported in part by funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. But its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that office. Any other agency of the Federal government or the Institute for Research on Poverty. Music for the episode is by Poi Dog Pondering. Thanks for listening.


Economic Support, Financial Security, Homelessness, Housing, Housing Assistance, Housing General, Immigration, Inequality & Mobility, Racial/Ethnic Inequality