Shelter-in-Place without Shelter: Homelessness in the Age of COVID-19

As COVID-19 continues to rapidly spread through our communities, cities, and countries, governments continue to enact and enforce social distancing and shelter-in-place measures. Schools and businesses have closed down. Most people in quarantine are working remotely while trying to find amusements that will entertain them from the safety of their homes. Most of us have the luxury to binge watch tv shows on Netflix in our comfortable beds and get our food delivered. If you do find yourself outside, it is encouraged that you wear a mask and remain six feet apart from other people. Staying home is the best action we can do to #FlattenTheCurve. As people continue to stay at home, it becomes clear that the ability to adhere to these measures is a privilege. A great section of our population that cannot abide by these measures due to their lack of housing, especially here in the US. If everyone is required to seek shelter and isolate themselves from everyone else, how do the homeless shelter and isolate themselves?

 According to the Article 23 of the  Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” Basically, housing and access to basic necessities and services are a human right. In the era of COVID-19, the governments and supply systems everywhere are put to the test such as: the panic buying of food and cleaning supplies, millions of people applying for unemployment benefits at the same time, and the lack of hospital beds, ventilators, and masks to effectively treat patients. This has become an immediate matter of life or death.  

Panic buying in response to coronavirus pandemic in Texas March 13, 2020. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)
Panic buying in response to coronavirus pandemic in Texas March 13, 2020 (Courtesy of Wikimedia).

Even before the outbreak, this right has been neglected and ignored by our leaders. In the US alone, a total of 552,830 people were experiencing homelessness on a single night in 2018. Indeed, in 2018, a UN report declared the homeless crisis and their treatment in the San Francisco Bay Area as a human rights violation. In the year of COVID-19, this crisis created perfect conditions for a contagious disease like COVID-19 to spread. A study found that the homeless population is at a higher risk of infection (with a peak of 40%) because they are more likely to have underlying health conditions and weakened immune systems. Faced with a global pandemic, these poor conditions will contribute to the factors that will worsen the conditions and safety of the homeless populations that our shelter and health systems are simply not prepared to meet.

There are efforts to shelter most of the homeless population once shelter-in-place orders have been publicized. However, these are massive endeavours in such a short amount of time. In California, where San Francisco and Los Angeles are hotspots for COVID-19 and homelessness, Gov. Gavin Newsom allocated $50 million to house people with an extra $100 million in emergency grants in homeless shelters and hotels. 

High-speed video imaging colored to reveal the two main components of a sneeze show a shower of larger droplets, green, whose trajectories can extend up to two meters from the person sneezing, yellow, and a cloud, red, made of a mixture of smaller droplets suspended in moist, warm gas. Pathogen-bearing droplets can be suspended in the air for not just seconds, but minutes, and can travel up to 27 feet. (Courtesy of LYDIA BOUROUIBA, MIT)
High-speed video imaging colored to reveal the two main components of a sneeze show a shower of larger droplets, green, whose trajectories can extend up to two meters from the person sneezing, yellow, and a cloud, red, made of a mixture of smaller droplets suspended in moist, warm gas. Pathogen-bearing droplets can be suspended in the air for not just seconds, but minutes, and can travel up to 27 feet. (Courtesy of LYDIA BOUROUIBA, MIT)

However, social distancing in homeless shelters prove rather difficult because people in shelters are crowded together, therefore, they are breathing aerosolized and droplets from each other. Even within shelter, it does not protect them from the spread of disease.  In San Francisco alone, there are still around 5,000 unsheltered people so they reside in encampments where they do not have the resources to prevent the spread of disease. In addition, those who are unsheltered lost their access to living essentials as businesses closed where they would provide services such as access to restrooms, outlets for charging cell phones, and food. Not only are they unprotected from exposure, but their suffering is increased by the lack of such necessities. 

Although this response from California to address the homeless crisis is unprecedented, one cannot help but think that this response is a little too late. For so long, our leaders perpetuated a system that ignores and demonizes the homeless for their situation. This current response shows that our government has the capacity to address the crisis but, only when the consequences of the crisis extends beyond the homeless population, our leaders try to resolve it. 

People prepare places to sleep in an area marked by painted boxes on the ground of a parking lot at a makeshift camp for the homeless, March 30, 2020, in Las Vegas. A  local shelter closed when a man staying there tested positive for the coronavirus. (Courtesy of AP Photo/John Locher)
People prepare places to sleep in an area marked by painted boxes on the ground of a parking lot at a makeshift camp for the homeless, March 30, 2020, in Las Vegas. A  local shelter closed when a man staying there tested positive for the coronavirus (Courtesy of AP Photo/John Locher).

Yet, this response is only a bandaid to the gaping wound that is our homeless crisis. A temporary fix to a problem that built up for decades. If there is anything we must learn from this pandemic, it is this: the country cannot afford to allow large parts of the population to go unhoused and exposed without access to adequate healthcare and social services. It endangers everyone. 

The sooner that we learn this lesson, then, the better prepared we will be for the next disaster or pandemic. The sooner we lessen the suffering of others, then, the quicker we can recover. The task of ending the pandemic and the issue of homelessness requires the effort of everyone.