How to end homelessness: Heed the lessons of COVID-19

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At the outset of the pandemic, it seemed only a matter of time before unhoused people became infected en masse. Without shelter, this group is uniquely vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus. There have been a few notable outbreaks: The virus ravaged a congregate shelter in San Francisco, for example. But the type of widespread contagion many feared has yet to arrive.

While a relief, this doesn’t mean that COVID-19 isn’t impacting homeless people. Instead, the pandemic has impacted unsheltered people in ways that are less visible but just as lethal.

Aside from catching the virus, the pandemic introduced a string of new health concerns for unsheltered people. For one thing, shelter-in-place orders brought a sharp decline in volunteer support. Encampment communities once assisted by a network of volunteers were suddenly left to their own devices to take care of things such as trash pickup and were often left with nowhere to dispose of waste.

Unhoused people need regular medical care. On average, they have a life expectancy of about 50 years, 20 years lower than that of housed populations. Even before the pandemic, few unhoused people were getting the care they needed, but the coronavirus has only created additional obstacles for those with pressing health concerns.

Take Roam, a 53-year-old unhoused woman, for example. Before COVID-19, she was making progress with her osteoporosis treatment. “I was on a roll, … but the coronavirus, it stopped everything,” she told me.

As public spaces such as libraries and cafes remain closed, unsheltered people have also lost access to public restrooms, leaving them with few safe or dignified ways to use the bathroom. These public spaces are also among the only outlets where unsheltered people can charge their electronics and access Wi-Fi. Without access, many have become increasingly marginalized, finding it difficult to stay in touch with friends, family and service providers.

Importantly, without Wi-Fi, many have also lost access to public forums. As meaningful civic events have transitioned to Zoom, unhoused people have been unable to weigh in on discussions that will impact their lives. For example, Oakland is gearing up to pass a new encampment management policy, yet encampment residents have been largely unable to give input on the policy since it was proposed. While city officials have made attempts to reach unhoused folks in the past, these efforts need to be bolstered in the face of the pandemic. Officials should conduct extensive public outreach before making decisions in council meetings, even if this slows down the process of passing policy. This would go a long way toward helping those most impacted participate in the legislative process.

While COVID-19 has yet to overrun the homeless community, the threat of widespread infection remains. The pandemic has only worsened issues already afflicting unhoused individuals — issues that are rooted in the same endemic racism and income inequality that have driven the course of the pandemic. These marginalized populations are now facing overlapping crises, which could easily lead to a spike in COVID-19 deaths on the street.

This historic moment should be a call to action for our elected leaders to face the crisis of homelessness head-on. And in some ways, we’re already in good shape — in the blink of an eye, the pandemic created the political urgency necessary to begin housing people, providing additional sanitation and allowing unhoused people to exist in public space. This moment has revealed that solutions many have spent years fighting for are working.

Since June 30, Alameda County has opened up some 861 hotel rooms for medically vulnerable homeless people as well as those who have tested positive for the virus. The acute power of housing as health care is important to remember as some cities, such as San Francisco, have started discussions about closing these hotels and moving people back to shelters or onto the street.

Per guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Bay Area cities such as Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose decided to halt encampment evictions during the height of the pandemic (though some encampment sweeps have continued). This is surely one reason we aren’t seeing widespread outbreaks on the street: By design, encampment evictions disperse people throughout the city, causing them to lose contact with their support networks. We should continue to halt these evictions as long as COVID-19 remains a risk.

We must also continue to view sanitation at encampments as an urgent priority. In March, Oakland added new port-a-potties, hand-washing stations and trash pickup to 20 encampments and increased the frequency of these services elsewhere. Advocates have been pushing for increased sanitation at encampments for years, but it was the pandemic that moved elected officials to action. However, we are far from where we need to be. I have personally counted more than 100 encampments in Oakland, each of which should receive trash pickup and sanitation services. All sanitation stations must be regularly serviced, which doesn’t seem to be the norm in Bay Area cities.

Finally, we must continue to find housing, provide services and raise funds for those who need them. We must keep one another engaged and informed. We must not slip back into the political stupor we lived in before the pandemic, when we heard the same talking points repeated like a stubborn melody with little action to back them up. The pandemic has shown us what a different future might look like. Let’s not forget that.

Alastair Boone is the editor in chief of Street Spirit, an independent newspaper in the East Bay dedicated to covering homelessness and poverty from the perspective of those most impacted.