Home News Vox: It took a pandemic for cities to finally address homelessness

Vox: It took a pandemic for cities to finally address homelessness

by Confluence
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Source:  Vox


In early March, as Covid-19 cases began to surface across the country, activists were warning that the virus would wreak havoc within homeless populations. Now, more than a month after shelter-in-place orders have been in effect in most major cities, the numbers have proven activists right.

In mid-April, New York City announced there were 460 positive cases and at least 27 deaths among its homeless population of more than 60,000In San Francisco, an outbreak in a shelter led to more than 100 positive cases, 10 of them staff members. In Los Angeles County, a majority of the coronavirus cases among the homeless — of the more than 30 so far — are from those who live on the street.

“We had near-record homelessness before this began,” said Giselle Routhier, policy director for the Coalition for the Homeless in New York. “We still have that homelessness crisis now as new people become homeless as a result of the pandemic.”

A pandemic poses a daunting situation for people who lack stable shelter, access to proper hygiene, and basic food supplies. Whether they live in shelters or on the streets in tent camps, there’s no way for them to practice social distancing to slow down the spread of the virus. The inequities people face has only gotten more prominent since the pandemic, said Jennifer Friedenbach, director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness.

“The very visual impact of wealth disparity that homelessness brings to the table has [been magnified],” she said, “because we’re talking about municipal governments asking everyone to shelter in place and they have thousands of people without an ability to shelter in place.”

As the threat to public health increases with every Covid-19 case, federal and local governments have taken some steps to address the needs of the homeless. The Trump administration is distributing $3 billion in aid to create emergency shelters and expand testing and treatment for these people. And cities are finally taking the advice of homelessness activists to expand shelters to unorthodox locations such as hotels and community centers.

Dr. Natalia Echeverri tests Juan Arias for Covid-19 in Miami, Florida, on April 17.
 Joe Raedle/Getty Images

While these are significant efforts, activists say it might already be too late. It’s taken a pandemic for officials to finally confront the issues of homelessness — and allocate the money and resources for solutions — and even then, many cities delayed action until there were finally confirmed outbreaks within shelters.

Many of the initiatives these cities have put forward are short-term solutions. After the pandemic passes, homelessness will continue to affect individual and societal well-being without a push for more affordable housing, providing rent assistance, or simply offering the houseless a home. The urgency of the issue will likely increase as more people lose their jobs due to the recession triggered by a nation-wide lockdown, Friedenbach said.

“As economies are getting devastated, we need billions of dollars poured into rent assistance, rent vouchers, construction of new housing, all of the different policy interventions to create housing specifically for people who are homeless and are extremely low income, so that we actually have that housing available to them moving forward beyond this,” she said.

Cities are addressing the issue of homelessness by improving hygiene, expanding shelters, and providing alternative housing

Several areas, including New York City and Los Angeles, have put some resources toward keeping the homeless population safe and sanitary. Cities have been installing portable toilets and hand-washing stations around encampment centers, and medical professionals have begun to make visits to educate these communities on preventing Covid-19.

There’s also a race to expand beds for the homeless to address the issue of housing. Santa Clara County in California, which has seen a 30 percent jump in homelessness from 2017 to 2019, built three additional shelters to alleviate crowding issues and provide more space for social distancing.

A mobile shower van in New York City on April 14.
 John Nacion/NurPhoto via Getty Images

More cities are also converting buildings that aren’t in use during the lockdown to house people. Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley announced that he’s turning convention centers into homeless shelters, including the Northern Kentucky Convention Center, which houses as many as 75 people every day. A library in downtown Spokane, Washington, has opened its doors to about 100 people a night. More than 20 local agencies teamed up to build a 49-bed shelter in a gym in Lansing, Michigan.

But these shelters still make people vulnerable to the spread of the virus because of the lack of walls and ample space, so officials are now turning to hotel rooms as a solution. It’s an effort that is being led by California: Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state has managed to house more than 4,000 people in hotels so far. He’s also announced that the state was on its way to acquire 15,000 hotel rooms total to house people as part of his state-wide initiative “Project Roomkey,” which was established so that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would pay 75 percent of the housing fees to shelter the homeless. Other cities are now following suit, City Lab reports: Hotels in New York City are on track to house 6,000 people.

The number of these hotel rooms, however, covers only a fraction of the people in shelters and on the street, said Friedenbach. Even in San Francisco, only about 750 people are in hotels right now, which is about 8 percent of the city’s entire homeless population.

One of the most striking images in the pandemic has been the dozens of people sleeping within taped white squares on parking lot pavement, while more than 147,000 hotel rooms remained empty in Las Vegas. (A city spokesperson said hotel rooms are not a housing option for now.) And while the city has erected a tent complex in the same lot, its doors aren’t open to everyone: Only those that have Covid-19 or who show symptoms or were exposed to a person with the virus can claim a bed. As of April 16, only five of its 500 beds were occupied.

People prepare places to sleep at a makeshift camp for the homeless in Las Vegas on March 30.
 John Locher/AP

“We have not been happy with the Covid-19 response to house people,” Friedenbach said. “We feel that it’s been a double standard, that people in housing were able to shelter in place and that same opportunity was not allowed of unhoused people, even though they had empty hotel rooms sitting there.”

The half-measures taken by officials won’t do much to protect the safety of the homeless, Friedenbach said. Without drastic measures like housing all 9,000 members of the community — which she said hotels have the capacity to do — the homeless community will remain vulnerable to the virus.

“We need to get real and wake up [and realize] that we’ve got over a million men, women, and children who have no place to call home, and we are forcing them to live without water, to not be able to wash their hands, without access to bathrooms, and our primary response is criminalizing them,” she said.

Long-term solutions are needed to combat the rise in homelessness

The expansion of shelters and alternative housing has been the primary response from cities to protect the homeless. These initiatives, however, won’t do much to address the long-standing issue of homelessness in the US. They also raise the question: Why did it take a pandemic for cities to find solutions to their homelessness crises?

Ultimately, homelessness should be addressed by the federal government, advocates say, and not be left to local governments to solve alone.

“The homeless crisis across the country is caused by the lack of funding at the federal level,” Friedenbach said. “And so it’s not really fair to put homelessness on local municipalities … because it goes back to divestment from housing at the federal level and then a series of bad policy decisions and inaction.”

A 75-bed emergency shelter is set up to combat the coronavirus outbreak in Long Beach, California, on April 11.
 Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images

There were drastic cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s federal housing assistance in the ’80s, and federal support for the homeless has remained meager ever since. The Trump administration has further tried to roll back funding for HUD and demanded work requirements for those who receive public housing subsidies, all in the name of helping the homeless achieve “self-sufficiency.”

But homelessness will only grow in the US as people continue to lose their jobs as the economy shuts down because of Covid-19. So far, more than 22 million people have filed for unemployment, and 31 percent of tenants in the US did not pay their April rent at the start of the month.

Michael Banghart, executive director of Renaissance Social Services in Chicago, said a multi-part solution is necessary to both prevent further homelessness while solving the existing problem — something that can only be done with additional funding from the federal government. Despite the current eviction moratorium placed in many cities, many people will not be able to pay their rent once the pandemic passes, and officials need to be ready to provide rental assistance to groups that are on the brink of homelessness, he said.

“There’s going to need to be some substantial funding that goes into the prevention of people losing their units. So when evictions are back on, we need to make sure that we can help people catch up,” Banghart said. “There’s research that shows that giving people a little bit of support can save a ton of money in the long run from them ending up in homelessness. Homeless prevention works. And it’s going to be a question of whether it’s resourced or not.”

Ultimately, solving homelessness means increasing affordable housing: building more public housing, providing more housing vouchers, and investing in bringing down rent. The benefits of providing secure, long-term homes for families through rental assistance are already documented, said Vanderbilt Prof. Marybeth Shinn, who wrote a book about the importance of permanent housing called In the Midst of Plenty: Homelessness and What to Do About It.

“If families just get access to housing that they could afford that was secure over the long term, they’re able to use it as a platform to change all kinds of other aspects and improve other aspects of their lives,” she said.

There’s also the option of giving homeless people a place to live for free, which has been proven more successful and cost-effective than leaving them on the streets. It’s already worked in Utah: Their chronically homeless population, which was nearly 1,932 people in 2005, dropped to a “functional zero” in 2015 after they made the decision to simply provide these people with houses. As a result, the state has saved about $8,000 per person because they’re less likely to use public resources from being hospitalized or jailed, or frequenting shelters.

A row of homeless tents in Washington, DC, on April 2. President Trump’s administration said it is distributing about $3 billion in the first round of coronavirus aid to help the homeless find emergency shelter and communities expand testing and treatment.
 Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The current situation is ripe for an increase in housing for the homeless, too — if the government is willing to make the investment, Friedenbach said. A number of hotels will go under due to the pandemic, some of which may already be housing the homeless, and the government could buy these buildings to house the community while also providing an economic stimulus, she said. It’s the kind of expenditure the government has shied away from making up until now, but she said she’s hopeful this time will be different.

“I think that this woke a lot of people up, and they’re starting to think about how intimately connected they are to their brothers and sisters out on the streets,” she said. “How the welfare and well-being of another member of our community very directly affects our own well-being.”


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