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Homeless Americans Are Particularly Vulnerable to COVID-19: What Can Cities and States Do?


It should come as no surprise that the homeless population is among the most at-risk groups in the United States amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. But a recent study raises alarms at just how vulnerable the country’s homeless population is, estimating that they are more than twice as likely to be hospitalized and two to three times as likely to die. The risk turned quickly into reality in San Francisco, where 70 people tested positive for the virus at the city’s largest homeless shelter.

Public funds for the homeless just aren’t there

The study, conducted by a team of professors from University of Pennsylvania, UCLA and Boston University, also revealed the severe economic ramifications of the crisis on homelessness. It estimated that $11.5 billion is needed annually to meet the additional needs suddenly sprung onto the shelter community, a figure far greater than the $4 billion directly allocated for homeless assistance grants from the government’s $2.2 trillion stimulus package.

The strict social distancing guidance prescribed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), urging people to keep at least six feet apart, introduced new challenges for shelters and temporary housing units. Facilities used to optimizing space to house as many homeless people as possible were suddenly searching for more space to adhere to the guidelines. This, paired with the urgent need to protect the estimated 300,000 unsheltered persons in the U.S., leaves a shortage of as many as 400,000 beds to effectively respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

“We estimated that there would need to be density reduction [in the shelters],” Dr. Dennis Culhane, a key researcher on the study, said on a recent webinar hosted by the National Press Foundation. “Most homeless shelters are quite crowded...in many cases adult shelters have bunk beds.”

Cities with swelling homeless populations and a high presence of the virus, like San Francisco, are finally beginning to embrace emergency tent encampments (other cities have been slower to abide by CDC directives to stop encampment sweepings). These sites, likely to be in enclosed outdoor spaces like in parking lots, underneath freeways or along riverbeds, would be roughly 10,000 square feet total and ensure a 200 square feet buffer zone between each tent. 

The encampments would minimally feature bathrooms, drinking water, handwashing stations and three meals a day, as reported in local media.

The hospitality sector has the assets to step in and help

Along with encampments, cities are using hotels, motels and recreational vehicles to house the homeless, though Business Insider reported that there are more vacant hotel rooms in San Francisco than there are homeless people. Putting homeless people up in hotel rooms may provide logistical hurdles to hotel and security staff, but the two-fold economic and health benefits could prove to be business- and life-saving. Hotels shuttering from the economic impacts of shelter in place orders could open their doors to homeless people and their wallets to government agencies and private donors willing to foot the bill.

Project Roomkey, a week-old initiative in California, pledged to secure as many as 15,000 hotel and motel rooms to provide safe housing for the state’s homeless. FEMA will cover three-quarters of the cost, including essential services like laundry, security and three meals a day. At the city-level in California, San Francisco Board of Supervisors are meeting this week to vote on an emergency ordinance that, if passed, would require the city to procure 7,000 unoccupied hotel rooms for the homeless.

Similar initiatives and movements around the country have been subject to criticism, mainly because of fears that approaches aren’t accounting for proper health precautions. Advocates in New Orleans, for example, are urging officials to take a holistic approach after a medical student and homeless volunteer rang alarms that the city was failing to adequately use medical equipment and adhere to health guidelines.

To New Orleans’ credit, city officials moved quickly to change its course, opening up additional hotels and more strictly following social distancing guidelines. The need to house the NOLA’s homeless in hotels became evident after one of its encampments became infested with rats.

Forced to shelter in place with nowhere to go

The closure of libraries, restaurants, coffee shops and other public gathering spots have also put a strain on the homeless population, limiting their access to facilities like restrooms at a time when health officials recommend routine and thorough handwashing as a means to quash the virus. These pop-up hand-washing stations, showers and other facilities have temporarily subdued the issue in certain areas, but it can be expensive and unwieldy to mobilize such services to all encampments.

“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,” Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition told Vox. “We can’t keep entire communities healthy in the midst of a pandemic if any one of us are left without a home.”

Beyond the stimulus’ $4 billion pledged funding directly for homeless services and the additional $5 billion set aside for affordable housing improvements, the federal government also issued an eviction and foreclosure moratorium through April. This will prevent the newly unemployed, at-risk and low-income people from entering homelessness due to their inability to cover rent or mortgage payments. This stay of eviction is enormously important, especially given that nearly a third of Americans didn’t pay rent between April 1 and April 5, according to data from the National Multifamily Housing Council.

While the government’s decision to stall evictions will limit the number of new homeless people, it will likely fail to protect those subject to informal evictions. In some cities, like Milwaukee and New York, informal evictions, representing roughly half of all evictions, are nearly outpacing court-ordered evictions. In the crisis months where landlords are receiving fewer timely payments and are legally bound to let tenants stay in their homes, landlords may become more reliant on harder-to-track informal evictions. Renters unfamiliar with the federal moratorium may opt to leave for fear of a court-ordered eviction, a blemish that stays with renters’ records for years and introduces a monumental hurdle for obtaining new housing. 

While the government’s decision to stall evictions will limit the number of new homeless people, states will have to maintain the large and dire responsibility to care for the estimated 568,000 homeless people in the U.S. As state and city governments grapple to find additional beds during these uncertain times, public-private partnerships with hotels, motels and trailer companies will remain the key to mitigating the free fall.

Image credit: Dan Burton/Unsplash

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Based in Atlanta, GA, Grant is a nonprofit professional and freelance writer passionate about affordable housing and finding sustainable approaches to international development. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.

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