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Stuart Malcolm, a doctor with the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, speaks with a person living on the street about the coronavirus in San Francisco, California, on March 17, 2020.
Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

During the Covid-19 pandemic, nowhere is safe for homeless people

The coronavirus crisis poses a new threat to those who have poor access to food, shelter, and basic hygiene.

The first reported US case of a homeless person dying due to Covid-19 has surfaced in Silicon Valley, according to California Gov. Gavin Newsom — and it unfortunately won’t be the last within the community.

Santa Clara County, California, which is where the person was living, has seen a drastic rise in its homeless population. Between 2017 to 2019, the number jumped more than 30 percent from 7,394 to 9,706, according to a statement from the county. And it’s not just a Bay area problem: In 2018, there were more than 552,800 homeless people in the US — 33 percent of which were families with children — according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Homeless person encampments on Skid Row.
Skid Row in Los Angeles. Homeless people are at greater risk of contracting and spreading Covid-19, as many homeless shelters are at capacity and public spaces are shutting down.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

In cities like Los Angeles, where gatherings have essentially been banned over the outbreak, homeless people still remain on the street, often clustered in tent camps with little privacy from one another. And until Tuesday, they were required to take down these tents during the day, further exposing them to the risk of contracting and spreading Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, according to the Los Angeles Times.

It’s a risky situation with few alternatives, as many shelters are at full capacity and public spaces like libraries are shutting down. Although officials plan to bring hand-washing stations, portable toilets, and weekly shower stations to these encampments, it’s simply not enough to ensure the safety of homeless people during this outbreak.

The homeless population’s lack of stable shelter, access to proper hygiene, and basic food supplies makes them a particularly vulnerable group during the Covid-19 pandemic, which requires people to stockpile groceries and practice social distancing in order to slow down the spread of the virus.

Yet not enough has been done on the federal level to address the homeless population. In the recent $8.3 billion bill passed by Congress, there were no funds specifically allotted to homelessness. And without additional resources, communities may not be able to expand shelter space nor pay for more service providers. That’s an urgent issue, says Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“When we’re in the midst of a public health emergency and when our collective health depends on our ability to have a home to quarantine or isolate in, it becomes more obvious than ever that housing is health care,” Yentel said. “We can’t keep entire communities healthy in the midst of a pandemic if any one of us are left without a home and sleeping on a sidewalk or in a shelter without an ability to slow or stop contagion.”

Bad health conditions and the lack of shelter make homeless people vulnerable to Covid-19

Living without a stable home is bad for your health. Lack of health care coupled with malnutrition and bad hygiene put homeless people at risk of contracting contagious and chronic illnesses.

The rates of respiratory diseases, which is a major risk factor for Covid-19 patients, are particularly high among this population. A study that observed a hospital in Washington found that 32 percent of those hospitalized for respiratory diseases were homeless, compared with 6.5 percent of all patients hospitalized.

Croswell Reid thoroughly disinfects surfaces that are regularly touched, including rail handles outside the main entrance, at Central Union Mission men’s homeless shelter in Washington, DC, on March 9, 2020.
Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

There’s also a concerning trend of the homeless population growing older, said Andrea Urton, CEO of HomeFirst, which serves about 5,000 displaced people in Santa Clara County. About 31 percent of homeless people in the US were over the age of 50 in 2014, according to the New York Times. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that the risk of Covid-19 drastically rises after the age of 60. Urton, who runs the largest shelter facility in the county, told Vox that she’s seen panic surfacing among the more vulnerable members of the community.

“I think people are scared,” Urton said. “We’ve had a huge increase in the number of people who are 55 and up over the last couple of years, and many of those folks — because they’ve been homeless for a long period of time — come with health issues. ... Those folks are worried.”

Although shelters are one of the safest housing options for older homeless people, many are at max capacity — including those that Urton runs. As of now, Urton said she can only refer newcomers to new housing facilities that the county plans to construct for the homeless.

Another issue among the community is the inability to practice social distancing. Although President Donald Trump advised that people should not gather in groups of larger than 10 people, that’s a luxury for people living in homeless encampments, whether they’re in the form of tent cities below freeways or groups occupying skid rows.

In New York City, for example, at least 3,500 people are sleeping on the streets and subways, often in close contact with each other. In 2018, a report from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development stated that there were 402 homeless encampments in part of the Midtown Manhattan area alone. The city’s Department of Homeless Services is sending staff members to look for homeless people with flu-like symptoms on the street — but it begs the question if the city is doing too little too late.

Many shelters aren’t capable of providing extra space either, as many are at maximum capacity. In Pitkin County, Colorado, where there are 13 presumptive positive cases as of Tuesday, the area’s main homeless shelter has reached its capacity and is no longer taking in any new clients, according to the Colorado Sun.

Shelters also heavily rely on volunteers, according to Jennifer Loving, CEO of Destination: Home, which is a nonprofit that serves homeless people. And she’s seen a heavy drop of volunteers over the past few days for understandable reasons: Many are quarantining themselves, either because they show symptoms or are fearful of catching the virus while interacting with others who aren’t distancing. But without volunteers, the homeless community will not be able to receive all the services that are essential to their wellbeing, she said, like delivering meals and hygiene kits.

Overall, Covid-19 provides a unique challenge to organizers who are used to squeezing individuals in their facilities so that the maximum number of people can have a roof over their heads at night, according to Loving.

“I’ve been doing homelessness work for 20 years here. I have done every type of service that you can imagine, so [obstacles are] not new,” Loving said. “But this pandemic is new — meaning historically, when we are dealing with homelessness or dealing with a crisis or a natural disaster, like a flood or a fire, we co-locate people. The idea is to have as many people together as possible. But in this situation, we have to do everything opposite.”

Shelters are doing what they can to protect homeless people from Covid-19, but they need funding — now

Despite these issues, shelters and local organizations have been doing the best they can to support homeless people.

The city of San Jose, which has seen a steep increase in its homeless population in the past few years, has set a good example in how cities should work with local organizations to ensure extra measures are taken to protect the community.

A portable handwashing station made available to homeless residents of San Francisco, seen on March 18, 2020.
Neal Waters/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

City officials have identified at least 14 encampments of more than 25 people, and have placed portable toilets and handwashing stations in these areas. They’ve also worked with HomeFirst to increase outreach efforts, which includes visiting with medical staff, providing hygiene supplies, and educating the community about Covid-19.

Santa Clara County, where San Jose is located, will also open three additional shelters to alleviate crowding issues. By doing so, Urton said she hopes she will be able to space out the beds within her shelters to minimize the spread of the disease. She’s also implementing further protection measures by ensuring that people sleep head-to-toe and purchasing $17,000 worth of sanitizing lights, which uses UV lights to disinfect surfaces.

Several organizations are also addressing increased food security as Covid-19 is shutting down operations around the country. Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless in New York, said her group is pushing to keep their soup kitchen open — which is particularly crucial during times like this as many others have closed because of the virus. More people have flocked to their doors for food, she said, a testament to how necessary their services are for many starving communities.

“We’re only operating sectors critical for people’s safety and survival,” she said. “Things have changed rapidly, so we’re trying to kind of triage the most immediate needs to make sure that we’re meeting them as much as possible.”

Secure housing is also a risk for those out of work because of coronavirus

Support for the homeless during the Covid-19 crisis doesn’t just entail helping those who are already on the streets. It also includes protecting people who are at high risk of losing their homes because of the economic impacts of the virus.

Officials are beginning to recognize the need to protect these low-income communities that could potentially become homeless due to the coronavirus outbreak. First it was cities and states, such as San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Los Angeles, and New York, that placed an eviction moratorium to ensure that nobody is kicked out of their house as the economy experiences a downturn. Then Trump announced on Wednesday that the Housing and Urban Development Department would suspend all evictions and foreclosures throughout April, according to the Associated Press.

It’s a major win for many low-income workers working in service or retail industries that will take a blow from Covid-19 and likely be out of work for a while.

“As a country, we also have to be really concerned in the middle of a public health emergency, that we’re not contributing to increased homelessness,” Yentel said. “We have to think about ways to keep housing-insecure renters safely and affordably housed during this public health crisis.”

Increasing affordable housing for the homeless is also the most desirable long-term solution, Yentel added. Shelters can only support homeless people for so long, especially when the virus is expected to continue disrupting normal life for the next few months. If the federal or local governments want to support communities as a whole, they should be providing extra support to place people within homes where they can actually practice social distancing.

“The longer-term solution, of course, is homes that the lowest-income people can afford,” she said. “If we had enough affordable homes that were affordable to extremely low-income people we wouldn’t have homelessness in the first place.”

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