If I Were a Rich Man:
Protecting the Houseless from COVID-19

If I Were A Rich Man: A Series
By Serena Saunders

Join Feminist Majority Foundation intern Serena Saunders each week in If I Were a Rich Man as she explores the topic of money–as it relates to feminism–to provide young people with the information and resources they need to survive, thrive, and fight economic injustices. This week, Serena’s explaining COVID-19’s impact on houseless populations.

What’s the Risk of Coronavirus to Houseless Populations?

Those experiencing houselessness are “extremely vulnerable, [to the spread of contagious disease], said Dr. Helen Chu, an infectious disease doctor based in Seattle.

Approximately 550,000 people are houseless on any given night across the United States, and 35.2% of this population are living without shelter. For houseless people living at shelters, there’s risk of infection from an undiagnosed person. The virus spreads through person-to-person contact or via shared spaces and surfaces, like reusable utensils in cafeterias. Additionally, shortages of hand soap and sanitizer further increase the risk of infection. Volunteers and staff may stay home in physical distancing efforts, decreasing staffing capacity and shelters’ response to the virus.  

For unsheltered people, who often have less access to the internet, media, and news in general, there is even greater danger. There is not only less access to information about COVID-19 and how to prevent its spread, but also a general inability to take the necessary individual measures to flatten the curve even if aware of the virus’ risk and prevention methods. Hundreds of thousands of people live on the streets where practicing physical distancing is impossible and accessing cleaning facilities on a regular basis is out of reach.

People experiencing houselessness are already at greater risk of illness. About 30% of houseless people had chronic lung disease, an underlying condition that exacerbates COVID-19 symptoms. Other common health issues preventing recovery include malnutrition, lack of sleep, and extreme levels of stress. And even one houseless person who contracts the virus may spread it to others, creating a massive ripple effect through a population of hundreds who cannot effectively stop the spread due to pre-existing conditions and lack of access to sanitation methods.

What’s Being Done to Protect Houseless Populations? 

The response to COVID-19 has, in general, not focused on protecting this high-risk group. For the most part, it’s fallen on states and municipalities to protect these people.

California, which has the largest houseless population in the country, is providing an excellent model that other states and cities should follow. On March 15, Governor Gavin Newsom made a statement that the state government will use private hotels and motels to provide emergency shelter and isolation spaces for those without shelter. He also noted that the government would send 450 travel trailers across the state in an effort to provide housing. No new information has come out about the specifics of the measures, but it’s a promising step to “get people out of encampments and into environments where we can address their growing anxiety and our growing concern about the health of some of our most vulnerable Californians,” per the press conference. 

San Francisco is providing physical distancing and quarantine support by providing recreational vehicles (RVs) to be used for temporary housing. The city is also looking into buying currently-unoccupied residential properties and hotels. San Jose has temporarily suspended efforts to dismantle encampments. Santa Clara County will likely take similar steps in addition to making public bathrooms and portable shower trailers more accessible and seeking to purchase temporary housing. Oakland has paid for extra hand-washing stations, hand sanitizer, portable toilets, and trash clean-up at encampments.

At the federal level, attempts to respond to coronavirus and protect houseless people have come not from the executive branch (the White House or the Department of Housing and Urban Development), but rather Congress. In the relief bill passed, $12 billion has been allocated for new housing assistance, including $5 billion in Community Development Block Grants (which can be used to provide emergency housing assistance to those who need it most), $4 billion in emergency homelessness aid, and $2 billion in additional housing vouchers for low-income renters.

Why Is This A Feminist Issue?

Those without permanent shelter are still people–people in need of our concern and care. As employers lay off workers and cut back hours as a result of coronavirus, fewer people will be able to pay rent or their mortgages. Unfortunately, we will likely see an increase in the number of people experiencing houselessness, especially if drastic anti-eviction measures are not taking swiftly.

In the words of Sacramento mayor Darrell Steinberg, “If we can use this terrible crisis to actually take the next steps to find enough beds, enough shelter, enough navigation centers, enough permanent supportive housing to dramatically reduce the number on our streets, that would be an incredible silver lining out of a most difficult time.” Solutions for houselessness are possible and, like accessibility accommodations, we must insist on them even when we’re not in a time of crisis.

Of people experiencing houselessness:

33% are families with children
18% are chronically houseless
7% are under 25 and living without parents or children
7% are veterans.

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