Social distancing measures are being implemented across the globe to curb COVID-19, but these measures are not an option for the homeless, explained Meg Black of Global Citizen, a movement of engaged citizens who are using their voice to combat extreme poverty by 2030. The impact of the pandemic in the society has never been equal, with homeless people paying a high price. Businesses are closing and social services have also been maximized, but the pandemic has brought more people in rather than kept them away from shelters.
Shelters enable the rapid spread of the virus due to overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Moreover, shelters also house people who have come in contact with hundreds of individuals prior to entry. The risks are also higher when they have pre-existing conditions. The causes of homelessness include job loss, the lack of affordable housing, and extreme poverty. These causes were exacerbated during the crisis, with homeless people more susceptible to contracting the virus.
The Well-being of Unsheltered US Adults (2019)
Janey Rountree, Nathan Hess, and Austin Lyoke of California Policy Lab, which pairs trusted experts from the University of California with policymakers, found that unsheltered people (51%) were more likely than sheltered people (6%) to report substance abuse as a contributing factor for the loss of housing. Unsheltered people were also more likely than sheltered people to report that their physical health (46% versus 11%) and mental health conditions had caused them to lose their homes (50% versus 17%).
Both unsheltered (46%) and sheltered people (34%) said that experiences of abuse and/or trauma caused them to be homeless. More unsheltered women (80%) reported that abuse and/or trauma was the cause of their homelessness compared to sheltered women (34%). In men, the figures were at 38% and 34%, respectively. Unsheltered people (84%) were more likely than sheltered people (19%) to report a physical health condition. Unsheltered people also reported a mental health condition (78% versus 50%) and substance abuse conditions (75% versus 13%). Unsheltered people (50%) were more likely than sheltered people (2%) to report all conditions.
Unsheltered people who have been homeless for less than a year reported a greater presence of health conditions (75% versus 11% of sheltered people) than those who have been homeless for one to three years (78% versus 27%) and for more than three years (92% versus 37%). On average, unsheltered people reported ten times as many police contacts (21 police contacts) than sheltered individuals (2 police contacts).
Unsheltered individuals were nine times as likely to report spending at least one night in jail in the last six months (81% versus 9%; 7 versus 0). Unsheltered people reported at least one visit to an emergency room in the last six months than sheltered people (94% versus 74%), as well as having twice as many visits (8 versus 4). Within the said timeframe, they were more likely to report at least one trip in an ambulance (74% and 29%; 3 versus 1).
The findings revealed that homelessness is a housing issue, a personal safety issue, and a public health and health care issue. While the solution was to house all unsheltered individuals and prevent others from experiencing homelessness, addressing the issue at hand would require the mobilization of efforts and resources from various sectors and systems—not only from programs dedicated to preventing and eradicating homelessness.
How Some Cities Around the World Manage Outbreaks
Over 63,000 men, women, and children slept in shelters each night In New York in 2019. Mayor Bill de Blasio failed to acknowledge the inherent dangers residents face when staying in crowded dorm-like environments. In response, the mayor said that 6,000 people would be relocated into empty hotel rooms by April 20. The move would prioritize seniors and individuals who have showed symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19.
At least 30 homeless people in Toronto have been infected with the virus. With 7,000 people taking shelter in the city each night—including overcrowded conditions—homelessness activists, physicians, and nurses lambasted Toronto’s response as lethargic and insufficient. Since then, officials introduced plans for a 400-bed “recovery center” for homeless individuals who tested positive, which would be operated by local health care providers and Doctors Without Borders.
More than 157,000 people are housed in shelters in France. Homeless individuals in major cities were fined for breaching orders to stay indoors, according to several charities. With that, homeless isolation centers were opened all over the country to accommodate homeless individuals. However, many support services like food banks and shelters were forced to limit outreach work due to a shortage of protective equipment.
Social Distancing Measures Are Geared Towards the Privileged
These orders assume households are financially capable to stay indoors, noted Leilani Farha of The Guardian, a British daily newspaper. Unaffordable housing plagued renters as countless households live month to month.
Homeless populations are also harder to track, test, and prevent transmission in since they are more transient and mobile than the general public. Shelters providing support for the homeless are also facing financial uncertainties due to the pandemic. Mark Aston, executive director for Covenant House Toronto, told Global Citizen, “We are facing numerous unexpected expenses related to keeping our staff and youth safe through this pandemic.” Staffing costs, preparing isolation rooms, and purchasing sanitizing materials will cost over $700,000 for Covenant House’s Toronto branch alone.
Seeing Housing As A Human Right
Whether there is a pandemic or not, policies that ensure one’s access to adequate housing for each and every person “remain a blind spot” as governments fail to do what they have to do under international human rights law, specifically implementing the right to housing. To provide adequate housing for the homeless, governments must ensure access to emergency and long-term housing, which includes securing hotel and hostel rooms and other vacant units. It is also strongly recommended to cease all forced evictions and evictions into homelessness.
Regulating housing costs such that they correspond with one’s household income and prohibiting speculative investment in housing that will contribute to unaffordability and eviction are also great actions plans for governments to implement.
Now is the time for countries to address housing issues and express more empathy for the homeless. Stay at home orders and social distancing measures are catered to those who are financially capable so governments must be more inclusive with their policies.