While many of us are staying in the comfort of our homes to prevent getting infected with coronavirus, billions of people are homeless or live in inadequate housing. This pandemic poses a dangerous life for people who lack access to basic human rights such as the right to food, proper hygiene, and stable shelter. While the homelessness issue already existed even before COVID-19 hit many countries, experts believe that this crisis will only make it worse.
Homelessness is On the Rise
Based on national reports, around 150 million people worldwide are homeless, or about 2% of the global population. Some experts believe that the actual number could be much higher. Meanwhile, about 1.6 billion people or more than 20% of the world’s population may lack adequate housing. The reasons behind homelessness across many countries are multifaceted although some factors stand out. This includes the privatization of civic services, shortages of affordable housing, investment speculation in housing, unplanned and rapid urbanization, and more.
The prices to buy or rent homes in many countries are relatively higher than wages, leading to rising property values and rental rates. This forces people to choose precarious living arrangements including slums, squatter settlements, and homelessness. Even people who have jobs often can’t afford adequate housing on minimum wages. For instance, a 2017 study found that no one in the US who works 40 hours a week at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour can afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent. They need to at least earn $16.35 an hour.
According to Yale Global, an online magazine that explores the implications of the growing interconnectedness of the world, obtaining an accurate picture of homelessness globally is challenging for several reasons. The variations in definitions, for instance, are somehow problematic. The definitions can simply vary from the absence of adequate living quarters to lack of a permanent residence that provides roots, security, identity, and emotional wellbeing. Experts say that having no official or agreed definition of homelessness hampers meaningful comparisons. Another problem is that governments lack resources and commitment to measure the complicated and elusive phenomenon.
Since the causes of homelessness are multifaceted, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. This means that the solution for a person’s problems might only offer temporary respite for another. But, some countries have been offering solutions that can address this problem. Finland, for instance, provided short-term respite for homeless people by scrapping hostels and shelters. According to the World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, it is the only EU country where homelessness is in decline.
“We decided to make the housing unconditional. To say, look, you don’t need to solve your problems before you get a home. Instead, a home should be the secure foundation that makes it easier to solve your problems,” Juha Kaakinen, who runs an organization called Y-Foundation, which helps deliver supported and affordable housing, said.
The Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Homelessness
Governments have advised us to observe social distancing at all times and stay home as much as possible. But, what about those who don’t have homes? Miriam Komaromy, MD, Medical Director of the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center, said that it’s important to get homeless people a place to stay in during this pandemic if we want to the virus get under control. This means they shouldn’t be left in the streets, tents, or even homeless shelters.
“People in shelters are typically crowded together and so are breathing aerosolized and droplet secretions from each other. They are also touching the same surfaces, and so are infecting each other via touching surfaces contaminated by respiratory droplets,” she said.
The impacts of the pandemic on homeless people are already showing. Vox, a liberal-leaning American news and opinion website owned by Vox Media, reported that New York City recently announced that there were 460 positive cases and at least 27 deaths among its homeless population of more than 60,000. The majority of the coronavirus cases among the homeless in Los Angeles County are from those who live on the streets, while the virus led to more than 100 positive cases, 10 of them are staff members, in a shelter at San Francisco.
Jennifer Friedenbach, director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, said that the inequities people face have only gotten more prominent since the pandemic. “The very visual impact of wealth disparity that homelessness brings to the table has [been magnified] because we’re talking about municipal governments asking everyone to shelter in place and they have thousands of people without an ability to shelter in place,” she said.
According to Wired.com, a monthly American magazine that focuses on how emerging technologies affect culture, the economy, and more, it’s also impossible for homeless people to maintain social distance. Even homeless shelters can’t meet the CDC’s recommendation of 110 square feet per person for people housed together during the outbreak. This kind of condition would leave a healthy person vulnerable to catching a disease like COVID-19. Some of them also have underlying conditions such as lung disease, heart disease, hypertension, and cancer, making them more at risk of being infected.
Officials fear that current figures of coronavirus cases among homeless populations are painting an insufficient picture because they are more transient and mobile than the general public. This makes it difficult to track, test, and prevent transmission. Shelters providing support are also burdened with their own financial uncertainties ahead as the pandemic rages on. "We are facing numerous unexpected expenses related to keeping our staff and youth safe through this pandemic," Mark Aston, executive director for Covenant House Toronto, said.
According to Forbes, a global media company focusing on business, investing, technology, entrepreneurship, leadership, and lifestyle, Dr. Komaromy suggested that countries can use empty spaces such as vacated dorm rooms, hotel rooms, and offices. States like California and Texas have already started moving the most vulnerable members of the unhoused population into hotel rooms. “The easiest way to get people hooked up to basic services is to find them housing,” Drew Capone, a water sanitation and hygiene researcher at Georgia Tech, said.