Homelessness and COVID-19: A Brutal Reality

Homeless shelters have come to face an impossible choice between downsizing their operations or keeping them open.

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By Rachel Chuong

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic across the world, millions of lives have been ravaged and changed forevermore. Some groups have become especially vulnerable during these times, such as elderly and immunocompromised individuals, whose plight has been widely acknowledged. But another group that has also been particularly susceptible—but that has been deprived of its due recognition during this crisis—is the homeless population. They have limited access to sanitation facilities, and significant portions of the population are either elderly or have underlying medical conditions.

Social distancing policies have placed homeless shelters in a particularly awkward position. On one hand, they’re vital to providing crucial aid and social infrastructure for the homeless population in numerous urban centers and communities. But on the other hand, the extremely crowded conditions and close quarters nature of these establishments make social distancing difficult to practice. Homeless shelters have come to face an impossible choice between downsizing their operations or keeping them open. While they are one of the only places that homeless individuals can turn to, they are also becoming increasingly difficult to maintain in accordance with guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Beds are often organized extremely close together in shelters, exponentially increasing the amount of close contact that individuals have with one another.

The collapse of other social safety nets throughout numerous cities and towns have further exacerbated the inability for the homeless population to seek basic necessities. Food banks have experienced shortages, and simple acts of kindness from pedestrians have all but vanished in the wake of stay-at-home orders. Self-quarantining by staff and COVID-19 cases in the homeless shelter network have intensified the stress of the entire system to a tipping point. Given the strong emphasis on basic actions like washing hands and avoiding large gatherings, it has become a dire situation where many homeless have resorted to staying on the streets and hoping for the best.

Furthermore, the current state of affairs has shed light on various underlying structural issues within the social infrastructure that attempts to help the homeless population. This crisis simply widened the cracks that were already present, most notably those pertaining to the issue of housing. Despite social services and aid networks, affording housing has become an increasingly prevalent problem in recent years. Affordable and safe housing serves as a fundamental bridge toward other aspects in rebuilding a stable livelihood. It becomes far easier to secure a job when one has a stable home with utilities and safety. The downsizing and closure of various homeless shelters has highlighted the overload of the shelter system even more. Concerns regarding safety and regulations in shelters have also been exacerbated in the wake of COVID-19. Shelters are ultimately a temporary solution, and long-time trajectories need to be mapped out in order to lessen the load on the support system as a whole. As of now, the homeless population is experiencing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Neglecting this situation is not only inhumane, but it also has universal consequences. The very nature of a crisis rooted in a pandemic is that each and every group is interconnected. Healthcare workers require crucial safety equipment such as masks and protective gear, which are produced by numerous workers in factories and plants across the nation. Grocery store workers and truck drivers continue to keep the supply chains running for important produce and food. The load on the healthcare system is also further flattened by the cumulative effect of social distancing by everyday individuals. Everyone’s health and safety is contingent on cooperation and an understanding that what affects one set of individuals will inevitably have a ripple effect throughout the rest of the social landscape. This concept applies just as much to the homeless population: there is a collective responsibility to provide aid for the community during this health crisis. Addressing the needs of our most vulnerable populations addresses the needs of our communities as a whole. Leaving the individuals most susceptible to the impacts of the virus to fend for themselves embodies the callous, destructive conduct that mutually deteriorates the health and safety of all.

Cities have attempted to tackle this problem through a few different means, such as moving homeless individuals to hotel rooms. Unfortunately, this approach is not a catch-all solution due to the sheer size of the homeless population, and it is imperative that more expansive reforms are made to resolve the fundamental problem: where to house homeless individuals. Various homeless shelters have reduced the size of the operations, sending a wave of homeless individuals to the streets. This has particularly profound negative impacts in sprawling urban centers, where the streets are especially dangerous in the context of the pandemic.

The two fundamental issues that need to be tackled are how to make social distancing feasible for homeless individuals and how to provide them with services that they no longer have access to due to shelter closures or service reductions. San Francisco has put forward a plan to solve this issue by creating a sanctioned encampment and attempting to space out individuals to enact social distancing. This plan is certainly a starting point that many cities could model after as a stopgap measure, but there is definitely a need to address the lack of sanitation supplies that the homeless population has access to. Setting up sanitation stations and providing facilities that enable people to shower and wash their hands is crucial for individual health and for collectively reducing the transmission of COVID-19. Even more broadly than just local and city-level initiatives, action needs to be taken at the federal level. Increasing the resources and funds that the Department of Housing and Urban Development has at its disposal will result in more wide-reaching proposals and programs that can have more leverage in increasing affordable housing. However, this does not necessarily displace the role that individuals have at the local level.

There is a particularly important emphasis on the role that communities have surrounding this pandemic. These types of crises often bring out the worst in people because of the imminent danger that has been created by this virus. However, now is a time more crucial than ever to understand that community cooperation is vital to the success of these relief initiatives. Furthermore, this situation has the potential for a positive spill-over effect much beyond the scope of this pandemic. Systemic issues—regarding both the support system for the homeless population and the ineffective strategies used by many municipalities to isolate the population, rather than actively working to integrate it—will hopefully be altered such that innovative, integrative strategies can be developed for long-term improvement.