While most of us have spent seemingly endless months now afraid of COVID-19, our collective fear does not mean we have all been sharing the same risks. As we have seen, the coronavirus is not an equalizer, but rather has affected different groups of Americans in dramatically different ways, with some people far more susceptible to contracting the virus than others. One particularly at-risk group is our nation’s homeless population, who are not only often combating other underlying health conditions, but also lack healthcare resources. The National Health Care for Homeless Council, acknowledges that homeless and unsheltered people have a greater risk for infectious disease and chronic illness than other populations. This can be attributed to the cramped living quarters of homeless encampments, that make the notion of maintaining six-foot social distancing guidelines a nearly impossible feat.
The problems facing the nation’s unhoused populations during the pandemic go beyond coronavirus infection, of course, and reveal all the different ways our nation has failed many of its most in-need residents. Since many of the most vulnerable in the population of homeless are women and children — homeless families composed of a single mother and children comprise 37% of the homeless population and 50% of the sheltered population, according to a report by the Bassuk Center — many of the issues they face are highly gendered. Los Angeles-based non-profit organization Happy Period works to end period poverty among homeless and impoverished communities around the U.S., and its co-founder Chelsea VonChaz told us, “We’re really trying to push the fact that periods don’t stop during a pandemic.” From the beginning of the pandemic, she has organized drops for menstrual products for women in need. However, many of the companies she works with have shut down production or changed shipping routines, making it challenging to gather feminine hygiene products for the kits she makes. “Even though it's menstrual care, they don’t really see it as a necessity. I have to remind them, no, it’s still necessary,” said VonChaz.
Another thing that’s changed because of the pandemic is that, with the closure of and limited access to countless shops and restaurants, homeless individuals have been left with virtually no places to maintain personal hygiene. VonChaz told Refinery29, “A lot of times [the homeless] can find coffee or places where they can use the bathroom and not be looked at or shunned, but unfortunately because of COVID-19 that is now a problem because most of them are closed.”
In response to this problem, across L.A., more than 100 hand-washing stations and temporary homeless shelter locations have been implemented to hinder the spread of COVID-19. The city’s Skid Row Housing Trust has installed 25 handwashing stations outside their affordable housing facilities. These are part of a donation from LavamaeX and The Right to Shower, who have partnered with the L.A. Community Action Network to have them serviced and supplied. “We are so proud, along with our partners, to increase the capacity for hand washing in the Skid Row community. This is good for our residents, our staff members, and our unhoused neighbors,'' said Jet Doye, Vice President of Fund Development & Advancement at Skid Row Housing Trust, which provides permanent housing to those who have experienced homelessness and other inequities. However, due to a lack of PPE, the staff members who collect signatures and housing paperwork for the homeless have decreased from seven members to two members.
The organization’s issues extend beyond safety and into the bureaucratic domain, with difficulties regarding things like processing paperwork efficiently, as all social security offices have had restricted hours, and a social security card is required for all move-ins. “We are working daily with the L.A. Homeless Services Authority, Housing Authority County of Los Angeles, L.A. County Department of Health Services, and the L.A. County Coordinated Entry System to manage these issues,” said Doye. “Everyone understands the sense of urgency required to house as many people as possible as quickly as we can.”
Other cities around the country are facing similar problems, and implementing similar solutions. Chicago has devoted 8 million dollars in funding isolation housing and homeless relocation. The city has also added five new temporary homeless shelters to assist in the COVID-19 pandemic, as reported by The Associated Press, as well as installed hand-washing stations in its largest encampment and began passing out hygiene kits.
But, Laura Zumdahl, the President & CEO of the Chicago non-profit New Moms, which provides support to women and families experiencing poverty and homelessness, expressed concerns to Refinery29 over the phone about the strain this pandemic puts on the already fragile safety nets of homeless mothers.
"People who live in poverty are already experiencing high levels of toxic stress. The impact that this has on a mom and her children is significant — they face long term increased risks and challenges to their health and safety, learning abilities, relationships, and economic stability,” said Zumdahl.
New Moms has seen a pandemic-related uptick in the overall needs of the mothers they assist. There has been a great demand for basic needs such as diapers, formula, wipes, and cleaning supplies. She also has had to implement massive changes to the flow of her program structure by making her programs and resources virtual.
“We are now providing daily e-learning sessions focused on resume writing, budgeting, and job readiness to participants in our job training program,” said Zumdahl. “Our family support team has implemented virtual ‘in-home’ coaching, an important way we can be a resource for our families as they navigate this crisis.”
The other major concern Zumdahl shared was the correlation between domestic violence and the pandemic. According to domestic abuse hotlines around the U.S. and abroad, there has been a significant increase in the number of calls they’ve received throughout the pandemic.
“We’ve seen reports that during times of increased stress and isolation, domestic violence increases — and unfortunately, young women and children experiencing poverty and homelessness are already vulnerable to experiencing domestic violence,” said Zumdahl.
In New York City, the unhoused population has a situation that is unique from other cities around the U.S., due to the city's ‘right to shelter' legislation, which obliges it to find any unhoused person some form of shelter. Due to this, New York City's homeless population of 60,422 lives mostly in housing shelters throughout the city — but that's no protection against the coronavirus.
In June, Coalition for the Homeless released a report explaining the far reaching impacts that those who are experiencing homelessness are faced during the pandemic. It revealed that those experiencing homelessness are 61% more likely to die from COVID-19 then the average New Yorker.
Jacquelyn Simone, the Policy Analyst at Coalition for the Homeless, spoke with Refinery29 about some of the report's findings, and noted the way it highlighted racial injustice, as well. She said, “Whenever we talk about homelessness we need to remember that homelessness is inextricably a racial justice issue. The fact that people of color are disproportionately represented among the homeless population is one manifestation in a long line of historical systemic failures and persistent discrimination against people of color.”
Christine Quinn, the president of Women in Need (WIN), New York City’s largest provider of shelters to women and families, fears that the children in shelters will be greatly delayed in their learning due to the pandemic. Many families don’t have connected devices to participate in the remote education system New York implemented this spring, and will continue to use in some form in the coming school year. “Despite the city’s promise that students in shelters are a priority, our kids are being forgotten,” says Quinn.
Since the pandemic started, WIN has spent over $200,000 in emergency funds getting cleaning supplies and stocking up their food pantries. While the Care ACT, passed by the government in April, is meant to support individuals and businesses affected by COVID-19, Quinn is wary of whether or not WIN will be reimbursed by the government for their spending. Furthermore, as has been the case with much charitable giving, private donations to WIN have been severely cut, putting the organization in a rough spot financially.
Quinn is worried about the effect this will have on the lives of the families they serve. “Some of our core services, like helping families find and move into permanent housing, have come to a halt because landlords won’t show apartments,” said Quinn. “It’s also become nearly impossible for our moms to find work right now. It’s a devastating domino effect that will stall the path to long-term stability and independence for many families.”
Since the onset of the virus, much has changed for those experiencing homelessness and the people that serve them. L.A. has seen more than 700 cases of COVID-19 cases within their homeless community, Chicago last reported to have around 302 cases in it’s homeless shelter, New York has around 1,300 positive cases and 100 deaths. And there doesn't look to be an end in sight to this pandemic, nor to the economic catastrophe it has caused for so many millions of Americans. So how are the organizations devoted to helping precarious populations doing?
With the current rise of COVID-19 cases, New Moms has slowly adapted to their community virtually, launched their job training program, and began accepting new mothers into their programs and residencies. “We continue to adapt our programming to find safe ways to support our families, in person when possible, to ensure they are able to access the support they need to care for their families and pursue their goals,” says Zumdahl.
WIN recently received a $500,000 donation from actors Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos, which will help homeless children and families gain the necessary tools to continue their education remotely.
“Kelly and Mark’s amazing gift sends a powerful message to homeless students: That they are seen and have not been forgotten. We are so grateful for their support and hope that others will follow their lead in supporting homeless families in their time of need,” said Quinn.
This is all well and good. But, should the lives of our most vulnerable people really be dependent on the largesse of celebrities? Or will our government finally step up and start helping the people who need help the most?