UC Berkeley School of Public Health releases report on COVID-19, homelessness

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The UC Berkeley School of Public Health unveiled a report titled “For the good of us all: Addressing the needs of our unhoused neighbors during the COVID-19 pandemic” at a campus event Wednesday.

The report discusses the increased vulnerability of the homeless community, recent policy developments as well as recommendations to protect people experiencing homelessness and the community at large. Recommendations include moving unsheltered people into hotels, providing accommodations for homeless youth, distributing resources, improving infrastructure for the homeless population and halting sweeps and confiscations.

“Sheltering in place should not be a privilege,” said Colette Auerswald, senior author of the report and an associate professor in the School of Public Health, at the event. “People experiencing homelessness should be given access and support so they can safely shelter in place, so they can quarantine or they can medically isolate.”

There are a wide variety of factors that must be considered, however, when moving unsheltered individuals into hotels, according to Sarah Ferrell, a campus graduate student who contributed to the report.

Ferrell said during the event that individuals must consider the daily realities of the homeless community, as that is “essential” to ensuring hotel programs are both “feasible and successful.”

For example, Ferrell added, a homeless person with few belongings — possibly including blankets, a generator and a tent — may have to give up their resources if offered a stay at a hotel, which could put them at higher risk when they reenter the streets.

In situations in which hotel accommodations are not possible, the report describes encampments as an alternative.

“We strongly believe that everyone should have access to real shelter in place in a unit with a door and walls,” Auerswald said at the event. We also recognize, for reasons including the ones described by Sarah about people’s belongings, people’s dogs, people’s pets, people’s partners, that that might not feel like an option. So we see encampments as a second choice.”

The report also describes the need to improve resources for the homeless community in general. This includes increasing the number of available public restrooms, as well as improving their cleaning and maintenance.

In order to stop the spread of COVID-19, hand-washing stations, showers, toilets and other infrastructural improvements need to be accessible, according to Jay Graham, a contributor to the report and an assistant professor in the School of Public Health.

The report also recommends that sweeps and confiscations of tents and belongings, as well as ticketing and towing of cars, are halted. It also emphasizes that basic needs, such as food and water, should be met.

“Hygiene and physical distancing are difficult recommendations to follow when living conditions are unsafe and when isolation itself presents serious consequences for already marginalized communities due to systemic inequalities,” said Toshali Katyal, a School of Public Health research coordinator who contributed to the report, at the event.

Contact Taylor Rudman at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @TaylorRudman.