Coronavirus and homelessness is a toxic mix that puts an entire segment of the population at risk. Have you ever been woken up by a police officer prodding you with their baton and telling you that you have to move?
That happened to me at Hurt Park in Atlanta, GA. I was homeless and living on the streets until my boss at the time found out and lent me the money for an apartment. I was also taking care of my mother, who was trying to get on disability. The shelters were full, but it was summertime. That was back in 2008.
She has passed on (2011) and I am back in my home state feeling rather grateful to be where I am now. I have a job, my own apartment, and everything is paid up. However, there are still many Americans who don’t have a home to “stay home” at, and their only places to access running water are public libraries, restrooms, or fountains at a park. If all of these are closed off, how in the world can they wash their hands?
Hygiene is an issue for those living on the streets. I would always bathe in a public restroom at Centennial Olympic Park. It was awkward, but I was determined to stay clean. That mentality isn’t so common among those living on the streets. Many on the streets are addicts trying to escape their traumas in life by turning to drugs. Some are mentally ill and some are elderly who can’t afford housing or have no family who will take them in. In cities where the cost of living is much higher than what one would make working at two part-time jobs with minimum-wage pay rates, homelessness is another crisis altogether. Add in COVID-19.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness states that, “People experiencing homelessness are uniquely at risk for contracting COVID-19.” They’ve put together a fact sheet titled, “Population At-risk: Homelessness and the COVID-19 Crisis.”
Some Quick Notes From The NAEH’s Fact Sheet
Researchers have estimated that in order to help people experiencing homelessness, $11.6 billion will be needed for 400,000 new shelter beds as well as the creation of quarantine locations for those sick and exposed. The CDC has already warned that people 65 and older may be at higher risk of being severely ill from COVID-19.
An estimated 107,194 individuals over the age of 45 were living unsheltered on a single night in 2019. These numbers were already growing before the outbreak and have been projected to trend upwards until 2030. In Los Angeles, the 65+ homeless population is expected to increase by 54% over the next 5 years.
Existing Health Concerns
The CDC also says that anyone with other health problems is at high risk. A recent study on the health conditions of homeless adults found several reports of health challenges among the homeless. This report is broken down into four categories comparing unsheltered people and sheltered people in health respects:
- Physical Health Problems: 84% of unsheltered people compared to 19% of sheltered people.
- Mental Health Problems: 78% of unsheltered people compared to 50% of sheltered people.
- Substance Abuse Conditions: 75% of unsheltered people compared to 13% of sheltered people.
- Trimbordity, which co-occurs the above three challenges: 50% of unsheltered people compared with 2% of sheltered people.
This means that people experiencing homelessness are more at risk of catching COVID-19 than those who aren’t homeless. These existing health conditions will most likely make it harder for the body to defend against new ones, especially if combined with unstable housing. It will also hinder self-care and health care services.
General Wellness Care
If you have never lived in a homeless shelter or visited a day shelter (shelters that provide services such as laundry, showers, and food), then you will never know just how crowded these can get. In fact, crowded shelters, encampments, sleeping outdoors, and housing instability make it extremely hard to practice social distancing, which is the key to warding off illnesses.
There are four main ways of taking care of your body so you don’t get sick. These four are:
- Eating sufficient and nutritious food.
- Getting sufficient sleep/rest.
- Social distancing.
Being homeless whether in a shelter or on the streets doesn’t enable you to do any of the above. I’ve slept in shelters before, in an open room packed with about 40 other people. Some snore, some mumble, and some don’t sleep. I once woke up to someone standing over me, watching me.
Add into this mix that access to running water is limited for those experiencing homelessness — hygiene is an out. Especially with all the closings of libraries across the nation.
Potential Homeless Population Growth
There are three factors that put COVID-19 as an immediate concern not just for those experiencing homelessness, but also for service providers. These factors are rising among older homeless adults, the unsheltered homeless (people living on the streets), and those on the brink of homelessness.
10.9 million households spend more than 50% of their income on housing. With over 6 million Americans filing for unemployment just in the last week of March, it’s easy to see that the number of those experiencing homelessness could rise. It will rise.
Solving This Crisis
There will be no quick fix to solving this crisis. However, there is a bit of hope. In New Orleans, there were five buildings donated to the New Orleans Mission to help meet the needs of those homeless during these times. These buildings are portable and were once school buildings. They will give homeless people access to bathrooms, running water, and other services — and most likely be used as quarantine spaces.
Right here in Baton Rouge, which is set to receive $3.2 million from the CARES Act, $955,859 will help the city provide essential services and shelter for the homeless. In Las Vegas, city officials say that parking lots marked to distance residents from one another were the best option after the virus forced one of the shelters to close.
The homeless are often forgotten, overlooked, or judged. Sure, some are junkies strung out on drugs. I’ve seen a lot when I lived in Atlanta — people using the bathroom on a corner, in MARTA elevators, or just wherever. I’ve been attacked, had a gun drawn on me, and have seen first hand what addiction does to people. It’s easy to forget that they are human, too.
When you see someone constantly throwing themselves into the doors of a Krispy Kreme at midnight while waiting on your bus, it’s easy to forget that was someone’s son, brother, father, or loved one. But they are human, and even though they made some seriously bad choices or got extremely unlucky, they deserve compassion. However, COVID-19 isn’t human — it’s a virus with no compassion for whoever it infects.
As you navigate the coronavirus pandemic, if you have the means, perhaps look into what local organizations help the homeless in your area and donate some cash to help them get food and care.