To combat the spread of COVID-19, physical distancing measures are being instituted around the world. But for those experiencing homelessness and insecure housing, safety measures are not only out of reach, they’re not an option.
While the burden of disease in society has never been equal, people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic are paying an especially high price. With social services stretched thin and businesses shuttering, rather than keeping people away from shelters, the virus has driven many in. Once there, they’re met with perfect conditions for the rapid spread of the coronavirus: overcrowded and sometimes unsanitary conditions, surrounded by others who have come in contact with hundreds of people prior to entry, with the added risk of pre-existing conditions.
While total prevention is impossible, major cities around the world are scrambling to lower the risk of widespread outbreaks and preventable deaths. In tackling this, there have been common challenges: confronting the issues of overcrowding and relocation, evading defunding, maintaining staff and volunteer safety, and racing to fill supply shortages, to name a few.
How Some Major Cities Are Managing Outbreaks
In 2019, more than 63,000 men, women, and children slept in shelters each night in New York City.
Hit especially hard by the virus, critics have argued that Mayor Bill de Blasio has failed to acknowledge the inherent dangers that shelter residents staying in crowded dorm-like settings currently face. In response, De Blasio announced that 6,000 individuals would be relocated into empty hotel rooms by April 20, prioritizing seniors and individuals who have either exhibited symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19. At least 460 people experiencing homelessness have tested positive and have 27 have died due to COVID-19 in the city.
On the other coast, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a plan, Project Roomkey, to house 15,000 of the state’s most high-risk people experiencing homelessness in hotels across San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Advocates for the homeless, however, have been frustrated with the pace and modesty of the state’s plans. With an estimated 150,000 homeless people in the state, originally the governor said California would quickly move to get more than 50,000 people hotel rooms.
Medical students Claire Chen, center left, and Miranda Stiewig, center right, take people's temperatures to screen for possible coronavirus cases at a makeshift camp for the homeless, March 28, 2020, in Las Vegas, NV.
In Toronto, at least 30 people experiencing homelessness have contracted the virus. With chronic overcrowding and at least 7,000 people taking shelter in Toronto every night, homelessness activists, physicians, and nurses have criticized the city’s response as insufficient and lethargic. Officials have since unveiled plans for a 400-bed "recovery center" for homeless people who test positive, which will be run by local health care providers, with the guidance and aid of Doctors Without Borders. The city has relocated 1,000 people out of crowded shelters and into hotels, emergency shelters, and public housing units. Another 1,000 people are expected to be moved by April 30.
In France, the country with the fifth highest number of cases worldwide, more than 157,000 people are currently housed in shelters. According to several charities, those experiencing homelessness in major cities, including Paris, Lyon, and Bayonne, found themselves in an impossible situation, fined for breaching orders to stay indoors. Since then, homeless isolation centers have opened nationwide to accommodate those unable to shelter in place, but many support services, such as food banks and shelters, have been forced to limit outreach work due to a lack of protective gear.
According to government figures, there are more than 4,000 people in London experiencing homelessness — although BBC reporting believes that number to be five times higher. Under pressure from charities warning against complacency in protecting this vulnerable group, more than 1,000 people have been put up in hotels to accomodate the overflow in shelters. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has also announced a new plan for people that develop COVID-19 symptoms.
"From this week, these people will be referred to a specialist COVID-19 care facility in a hotel in east London, where their symptoms can be monitored and they can receive appropriate care and medical support," Khan said in a statement.
Challenges Ahead: Insufficient Testing, Economic Recession, and Inadequate Support
As countries grapple with an insufficient number of tests, the shortage is especially noticeable in difficult environments. Homeless populations are more transient and mobile than the general public, making it difficult to track, test, and prevent transmission, and with that, officials fear that current figures are painting an insufficient picture. Positive cases inside shelters often fail to capture the scope of the peril. In New York, for instance, case figures do not include people staying in shelters run by charities or other public agencies.
As the pandemic rages on, shelters providing support are also burdened with their own financial uncertainties ahead, due to the COVID-19 crisis.
"We are facing numerous unexpected expenses related to keeping our staff and youth safe through this pandemic," Mark Aston, executive director for Covenant House Toronto, told Global Citizen.
From staffing costs to preparing isolation rooms to purchasing sanitizing materials, Covenant House anticipates the costs will surpass $700,000 for the Toronto branch alone.
Aston also fears the crisis will cause further insecurity and mental health challenges for the youth sheltering at Covenant House.
"Young people staying with us — who have put so much work into stabilizing their lives — have been thrown back into uncertainty," he said. "Their feelings of isolation, anxiety, and distress have now been compounded during this pandemic, and our staff are working hard to help them cope."
In the throes of a global recession, and bracing for a prospective depression, shelters are also concerned about a spike in the homeless population.
"We already have the issue of people trapped on our streets and exposing themselves to the risks of COVID-19. We need to ensure that people aren’t newly being forced onto the streets or lose access to welfare systems," Jasmin Basran, policy and public affairs manager at UK homelessness charity Crisis, told Global Citizen.
"We’ve never seen initiatives of this scale, moving people off the streets and into shelters. It’s unprecedented. That shows what can be done when there’s political will behind ending homelessness and rough sleeping," Basran added. "Now we need to ensure that that support is upheld and improved."