At first, homelessness was considered a “big city problem”—but to the dismay of the more privileged, encampments have begun popping up in even the most unsuspecting towns. The consensus seems to be that homelessness is a result of laziness and/or poor life choices. People refer to “the homeless problem” with pity but intolerance, never acknowledging that inequality and discrimination are what got us here. Homelessness isn’t just the people wandering barefoot on the streets or sleeping in tents; that’s likely just the highly visible 10-15% categorized as “chronically homeless.” The homeless aren’t just people who chose drugs over everything; in fact, the rate of substance abuse among homeless people isn’t much higher than the rate among the general population.
Whenever there’s a disruption from everyday life, vulnerable populations suffer most. We’ve seen it happen in recent history including displacement in the wake of natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey and now the fallout from COVID-19. A prolonged lockdown was punctuated by a national reckoning with racism. People were upset enough to vote in record numbers, but what about those who are most dramatically affected by policy? Those with the most uncertain future? The people who will be the most heavily affected by the pandemic—the homeless—are those who didn’t get a say.
According to official statements issued by the White House, there are well over half a million people experiencing homelessness on any given night in this country. Because people (particularly young people and families) cycle in and out of homelessness, however, all the information we have on the pervasivity of poverty is merely speculation. Still, half a million people on any given night is a significant number of people and that information was made public long before the pandemic left millions financially insecure, claimed 300,000 lives, and tanked the economy. All but 16 states and Washington, D.C. have lifted the bans on evictions despite increasing cases and the looming prospect of secondary lockdowns. People owe months of rent and have lost additional relief funds. Classrooms and offices have gone virtual, further excluding the 10% of the population without an internet connection from accessing resources. Many companies have gone under or are expected to downsize permanently. Competition for employment will be tough in the months to come with so many people looking for work.
When asked why they’re experiencing homelessness, most will say it’s a combination of unfortunate events and financial hardship. Some people leave home voluntarily at first or to flee an abusive situation. Many have limited access to opportunities for advancement. Income inequality, employment discrimination, and a severe lack of affordable housing have made it very difficult to maintain stable housing through hardship. The pandemic may be the tipping point for many Americans who were already in compromising situations. The increasing rates of homelessness among the “boomer” generation are staggering and expected to double in the next decade.
There’s a revolving door between incarceration and homelessness, too. On one hand you have the criminalization of the homelessness. Using the bathroom or sleeping in public becomes a crime without the privacy of four walls. It’s not uncommon for people to call the police on homeless people since many associate homelessness with crime. If the police are clearing an encampment, those living there might object and be arrested. Jails are being used as shelters to keep homelessness out of the public eye—and it can be hard to maintain a positive reputation following incarceration, both professionally and personally. Often, people find themselves in uncertain situations following a period of incarceration. Social bonds may have dissolved over time and they may not have stable employment or shelter to return to. Although certainly not true for all of those who find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system, the formerly incarcerated are ten times more likely to experience homelessness. To comply with COVID-19 safety regulations, many states released thousands of low-level offenders to help reduce crowding in jails. A number of those released had been exposed or infected with the virus, and social service organizations scrambled to provide resources and transitional living arrangements for those who had been expedited out of the criminal justice system as a result of the pandemic.
With research ongoing, we still don’t know much about what those who have recovered will experience long-term with regards to their health and lasting complications. While survivors should be prioritizing their health, we find ourselves in a time when healthcare is still a privilege still unavailable to many—and those who fell ill could face hospital bills of over $45,000. Lockdowns, imposed restrictions, and capacity regulations forced businesses to downsize and entire industries to pause entirely, which led to one of the highest unemployment rates the United States has seen in decades. Some businesses are closing for good and declaring bankruptcy as others move toward permanently adopting a work-from-home module, eliminating a number of low-paying facility-oriented positions from the payroll. Lower-income earners have been hit the hardest and will continue to face increasing hardship in months to come. As cases surge to new record highs, states have begun to revert back to stricter lockdown policies once again—but those who have no home are again in the most vulnerable position. Winter is already a particularly difficult time for those exposed to the elements, but adhering to COVID guidelines in shelters will present unique challenges to aid organizations this year. The unfortunately fatal flaw in our national response to COVID-19 is that it largely excludes the homeless and those experiencing housing insecurity from the conversation on how they will be able to protect themselves from contracting and spreading the virus or accessing treatment if needed.
Not only will the pandemic continue to threaten the most vulnerable in our society, but it will push those in compromising situations into more dire circumstances. It would be irresponsibly optimistic to think that even a change in leadership will bring about any immediate relief or solutions to what will continue to be an increasingly urgent predicament.