In the United States, hundreds of thousands of people are experiencing homelessness each night.
There are many reasons why people might be experiencing homelessness: some people are chronically homeless, some were recently evicted or lost their housing, some are leaving a violent situation, and some are staying with friends or family temporarily but might not have a permanent place to stay. As you can probably imagine, being unhoused can cause and contribute to many physical and mental health conditions. People experiencing unstable housing often have to focus on their immediate safety and survival and may not have time or resources to tend to health concerns or receive timely care for chronic conditions. Those living outside are at risk of violence and theft, they may be injured or sickened by extreme weather, and they likely have difficulty getting restorative, restful sleep – which is vital for maintaining health.
Heartbreakingly, although the best way to protect yourself from COVID-19 is to quarantine at home, people experiencing homelessness don’t have this option—and the pandemic has also led to housing difficulties for many people. For some this is due to difficulty paying rent (although many cities have implemented eviction relief programs, many people are still facing eviction), and for others it might be related to decreased capacities at shelters and other residential programs related to attempts to slow the spread of COVID-19 in congregant settings. Many people who usually stay in shelters may also avoid these settings in order to avoid contracting COVID-19.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the CDC stated that cities should allow people living in homeless encampments to stay where they are and recommended against clearing encampments. Unfortunately, some cities did not follow this guidance and chose to clear encampments. This hurts people experiencing homelessness because people may not have anywhere else to go, or they may be choosing to avoid shelters for good reasons (risk of COVID may be greater in shelters; some shelters do not allow couples to stay together; many shelters require that residents be completely substance free, which may not be an option for many people). The clearing of encampments despite this guidance, coupled with the lack of permanent housing options for the growing number of people experiencing homelessness, has led community organizers in some US cities to create protest encampments. These protest encampments aim to provide a safe communal place for people experiencing homelessness to stay and also to build collective power to raise awareness and put pressure on cities to provide enough affordable permanent housing to house all citizens. You can read more about protest encampments in Philadelphia here. Even in places where encampments were not cleared, the closing of spaces like libraries and drop-in centers has made life more difficult for people experiencing unstable housing. Unfortunately, many programs that provided resources like meals for people experiencing unstable housing were forced to close or severely restrict services in order to protect volunteers and employees.
Early in the pandemic, four cities (Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, and Atlanta) rolled out efforts to provide testing to people living in homeless shelters, and found that 25% of people tested positive. Thankfully, the number of people who experienced severe complications or died of COVID-19 among these populations has not yet been as high as was feared, but these high rates of positive tests highlight how easily the virus can spread in congregate settings. One myth that is gaining traction on social media is that COVID-19 must not be so deadly because it has not killed large numbers of people experiencing homelessness. Not only is this myth ridiculous because we know that COVID-19 has killed 257K people in the US and 1.39M deaths worldwide, it also completely ignores the horrible impacts that the pandemic is having on people experiencing unstable housing. If you see this myth circulating among your contacts on social media, please make sure to set them straight.
If you want to support the health of people experiencing unstable housing in your community, you can bring food, clothing, first aid kits, or supplies like sleeping bags to people living outside in your neighborhood or city – that is the fastest way to get supplies directly to the people who need them. You can also donate these items to shelters or homeless service providers. Items like warm socks, hats, gloves, and long underwear are always appreciated in cold climates. Clean masks and hand sanitizers are also helpful items to donate.
You can find the CDC’s guidelines for homeless service providers and people experiencing homelessness here.