Homelessness and COVID-19

by Nathalie Freeman, WFU JD/MA in Bioethics Candidate ’21

This year over half a million people in the United States are experiencing homelessness.  Between 25% and 50% of these homeless people work, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these individuals are serving as low-wage essential workers.  Even without considering the current pandemic, individuals who consistently stay in homeless shelters, or live on the streets, have a lower life expectancy, higher rates of addiction, and more underlying health conditions.  With COVID-19 sweeping the country, homeless people are more vulnerable to the virus than housed individuals due to cramped conditions in homeless shelters, lack of access to basic sanitation materials, pre-existing comorbidities, and a general lack of access to health care.  Additionally, a large portion of the homeless population is elderly and already suffering from pre-existing conditions, like chronic heart or lung disease, which make them more likely to succumb to the coronavirus. 

Each year in the United States, approximately 1.4 million people access homeless shelters or transitional housing.  Several studies conducted this spring revealed that the virtual inability to socially distance in homeless shelters, as well as the advanced age and low health of many shelter residents, make shelters potential hotspots for COVID-19.  These studies demonstrate an urgent need for testing in homeless shelters and communities.  Additionally, shelters and local health authorities must allocate separate housing options for individuals who test positive for the virus. 

Many homeless individuals live on the streets, either by themselves or in tent communities.  During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in homeless encampments in cities across the county, including Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Denver.  Some residents of these encampments have been turned away from homeless shelters, while others state that they feel safer and have greater access to food, clothing, and other resources in the encampments than they do elsewhere.  Local governments, however, have not been receptive to the erection of these homeless camps, and while the CDC has advised against the practice of encampment sweeps by law enforcement, many cities have taken action to disband these communities.  These sweeps, in addition to leaving unsheltered individuals shaken and scrambling to find somewhere new to sleep, are likely to lead to an increased spread of COVID-19 as infected individuals are forced to disperse and carry the virus to new locations and communities.

As of August 2020, at least 206 homeless people in the US have died of COVID-19.  As the weather cools, even more homeless individuals will be forced to move indoors and access emergency housing, exacerbating the issue of COVID-19 spread in shelters.  It is time for the government to recognize, and begin to mitigate, the disproportionate effects of this virus on homeless individuals.  The National Homelessness Law Center has published 10 Recommendations for the treatment of homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic.  These recommendations include placing a moratorium on sweeping encampments, ensuring that emergency cash relief measures are made available to homeless people, and making hotels, motels, and other housing options available to homeless individuals for the duration of the pandemic.  Additionally, the National Alliance to End Homelessness has created a Framework for an Equitable COVID-19 Homelessness Response, which should be considered and implemented. 

During this pandemic, homeless individuals in the United States have been referred to as a “silent population,” but in reality, they are a population that is often neglected and ignored by our government and our health care system.  The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the disparate treatment of these individuals, and in the interest of equity, steps must be taken to address this wrong.

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