The World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the spread of the COVID-19 virus a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) project that the virus’s spread will get worse before it gets better. During this unsure and rapidly changing public health landscape, individuals and families experiencing homelessness are especially vulnerable due to lack of access to medical resources, stable shelter, and reliable and rapid communication.
In a given day, more than 500,000 people in the United States experience homelessness, with an estimated 1.4 million children ages 6 to 18 facing homelessness at some time during the school year. These communities are disproportionately Black or African American, Native American, or Latinx; people with disabilities and people with weakened immune systems as a result of chronic stress also experience homelessness at higher rates.
At times of crisis and disaster, homeless individuals and families are even more at risk. Housing insecurity looks different across experiences, and each person and family has specific needs to ensure their health and safety during this global crisis. Older adults, for example, face homelessness at increasing rates and are among those at higher risk of becoming sick from COVID-19. As Congress seeks to address and mitigate the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers must ensure that their efforts are centering communities experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity.
The need for increased protections and preventative actions for homeless individuals and families in the face of the coronavirus
The more than 18 million adults and children living in deep poverty who disproportionately experience housing insecurity already face cumulative hardships that affect individual and community health and safety. In 2019, more than 50,000 families with children younger than age 18 experienced homelessness every night, with almost 15,000 of these families living unsheltered. Experiences with homelessness have negative and severe impacts on adults’ and children’s physical and mental health as well as on development, and these impacts are only exacerbated during large-scale crises and disasters.
In an effort to address some of these hardships, the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which is now being sent to the president for signing. Although the bill includes some protections for workers, such as emergency paid sick days and emergency paid leave, many are left out. Among the bill’s necessary actions to protect low-income people, for example, the needs of individuals and families facing homelessness are not explicitly mentioned in any of the proposed solutions. Workers experiencing homelessness and people living in poverty are especially at risk of lost income and resources, increasing existing financial hardships, and thus need to be included in any measures to shield workers from the economic impacts of the pandemic.
Access to stable housing, especially during times of emergency, also helps eliminate many of the barriers to gaining and maintaining health and safety. Organizations that provide services to homeless communities, such as in California, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., have been proactive in their responses to COVID-19 by setting up hot water hand-washing stations, restructuring the bedding layout of shelters, and providing on-the-ground education about the virus’s spread and prevention. However, these and similar organizations don’t have the resources to fully meet current needs and are especially underprepared to service the communities who are living unsheltered, in encampments, and in emergency and short-term group lodging.
Human rights groups are pushing policymakers to explicitly include the needs of those facing housing insecurity in proposed responses to the coronavirus crisis. In addition to generalizable health measures, such as social distancing, testing, and recovery care, here are three approaches that lawmakers must consider in response to the coronavirus pandemic that would reduce risk and vulnerability for homeless individuals and families.
1. Prioritize permanent housing placements for individuals and families
Lawmakers should prioritize immediate assistance to provide safe and resourced housing for unsheltered people. The National Low Income Housing Coalition, Coalition on Human Needs, and other organizations have called for increased funding to support housing needs through federal grants such as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants Program and the Disaster Housing Assistance Program. Providing housing availability for unsheltered individuals and families would ensure immediate access to space to socially distance and self-quarantine as well as to consistent showers, hand-washing, and toilets—basic needs that are hard to access or completely inaccessible when living unsheltered.
Immediate housing solutions, such as emergency and transitional shelters that service 350,000 people on a given night, help individuals and families gain temporary access to the benefits of sheltered living. Furthermore, long-term and permanent housing solutions, such as Housing First and other approaches, help vulnerable groups gain stability; improve health; lift individuals and families out of poverty; and promote social and community inclusion. Importantly, safe housing with clean water access is necessary to adhere to WHO and CDC recommendations for the prevention of the spread of COVID-19.
2. Provide resources for emergency shelters and access to isolation centers
The CDC has provided prevention guidelines for homeless shelters. Shelters and other direct service providers already face resource deficiencies and overcrowding and are experiencing even more shortages in response to the spread of COVID-19. Overcrowding of any space makes it difficult to engage in social distancing and is especially dangerous. Along with providing access to housing, Congress also needs to support shelters with increased funding to provide residents with personal health and hygiene resources, such as soap, laundry, and hand sanitizer.
As many states and cities ban large gatherings, policymakers at the federal level must recognize and address overcrowding in shelters to prevent the rapid spread of COVID-19 among this already vulnerable population. Shelters and temporary housing have limited capacity and often have insufficient space to meet demands. These shelters need increased physical space when responding to immediate housing needs, particularly in light of recommendations to engage in social distancing and isolation. Shelters need resources and immediate funding to establish emergency isolation and quarantine centers for those who do not have space to socially distance on their own. Some localities, such as in Multnomah County, Oregon, have increased motel and hotel voucher availability as temporary housing solutions.
Along with the widespread closure of business and restaurants, public spaces have also limited hours or have closed entirely. For example, public libraries and places for religious congregation have announced closures in attempts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Libraries, which provide daytime shelter, local information, and access to the internet, offer valuable resources for people experiencing homelessness. Expanding access to and providing more space for emergency housing, such as by extending daytime shelter hours beyond just evenings and overnight and making more housing units available, would reduce some of the additional barriers brought about by closures.
3. Increase outreach and assistance for unsheltered individuals
Policymakers should also support direct street outreach and care. Barriers to access to traditional medical care suggest street- and shelter-based care is more efficient for people facing homelessness. Experts suggest adopting community-centric health care models within shelters to reduce the burden and cost faced by hospitals as a result of the pandemic. States and localities should develop specific, actionable plans for outreach to homeless people—who are already at higher risk for infectious disease and have higher rates of chronic illness—to make sure that their health care needs are met during this time. If COVID-19 becomes present in encampments and unsheltered group living spaces, rapid education about how to prevent spread and the distribution of soaps, sanitizers, and other preventative materials should be made readily available.
Among those who are living unsheltered, forced encampment closures—or “sweeps”—regularly displace homeless individuals and families and disrupt stability. These closures create additional communication and resource distribution barriers for both homeless people and direct service providers. Lawmakers should immediately halt forced closures of encampments, and lack of access to sheltered living should be decriminalized.
Moreover, people experiencing homelessness have less consistent and reliable access to certain technologies such as smartphones, which provide real-time updates and news. In this rapidly changing crisis, receiving accurate updates on coronavirus spread, care, and prevention are critical to individual and community health. Past public health initiatives have utilized new technology paired with cell phones to increase access to medical resources and promote public health for people living unsheltered. These and similar programs that provide free access to technology can be a model for on-the-ground efforts in response to COVID-19. Policymakers should support these responses in order to make sure homeless communities are being informed by key sources specific to the COVID-19 pandemic—such as the CDC, WHO, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, local public health departments, and groups such as the National Coalition for the Homeless—in timely and accurate ways.
As Congress looks for equitable ways to address the COVID-19 pandemic, it must recognize assistance for those experiencing poverty across the spectrum in both reactive and proactive solutions. Moving forward, policymakers must address the disparate impacts that homeless individuals, families, and communities face—and the federal government should work vigilantly to provide rapid solutions that protect the health, safety, and well-being of all. Access to stable and long-term housing should be prioritized, especially during times of extreme vulnerability. As Congress considers next steps, it is important that multiple systems, such as public health departments, legal agencies, housing assistance programs, and nonprofit organizations, are given the resources to work together to address needs. Homelessness should not be an additional risk factor during the coronavirus pandemic.
Jaboa Lake is a senior policy analyst for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.
The author would like to thank Rejane Frederick, Alexandra Cawthorne Gaines, Areeba Haider, Julian Hernandez, Jaycee Lake, Valerie Novack, Gregory Topete, Taryn Williams, Michela Zonta, and CAP’s Health, Economic Policy, Women’s Initiative, and Editorial teams for their review and contributions.
To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.