2020 has been called the year of “unprecedented times.” As COVID-19 continues to spread globally, leaders all around the world are tasked with finding the best solution to minimize the spread of the global pandemic. While some countries such as New Zealand, India, and the United Kingdom have instituted a national lockdown and contact tracing to keep track of who has the virus and who they’ve come into contact with, in the United States, decisions on whether or not to shut down were left up to individual states and their local governments.
However, with no vaccine for the virus, leaders around the world share the same goal: to reduce exposure to the virus and prevent as many cases as possible. In the United States, a special focus has been placed on protecting those deemed most vulnerable by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which are mainly older adults and people with underlying medical conditions. Yet, there is another group in the United States at a high risk of contracting the virus that has been tremendously overlooked by many government leaders: the homeless population.
Homelessness is a crisis present within essentially every major city in the United States and around the world. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in 2019, 567,715 Americans experienced homelessness on a given night. This includes those who sought refuge in emergency shelters, spent the night in their cars or abandoned buildings, and those who spent their night outside sleeping on the streets or in makeshift tents. There is a multitude of reasons why one might experience homelessness, but they all boil down to the lack of affordable housing and government support. As a result, homelessness disproportionately affects minorities in the United States who are denied equal rights and opportunities to sustainable income and housing due to persisting racial disparities, which largely stem from a long history of discrimination and systemic racism present in many of our country’s institutions.
Homelessness also disproportionately affects people with existing physical or mental health conditions, as it is harder for them to maintain stable employment, and subsequently, a stable income. While there are national organizations dedicated to ending homelessness in America, such as the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the problem has persisted for decades due to the fact that homelessness continues to take a back seat compared to other problems in the American political sphere. With COVID-19 taking precedence in the United States currently, it would be irresponsible to discuss the pandemic without addressing the ways in which homelessness and COVID-19 impact each other.
To examine the relationship between COVID-19 and homelessness, we must first begin by examining the guidelines set by the CDC to minimize the outbreak in the United States. According to the CDC, the most effective ways of slowing the outbreak include: washing your hands regularly, avoiding close contact with others, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces regularly, monitoring your health daily, making sure to take note of any possible COVID-19 symptoms, and getting tested as needed. While testing for COVID-19 has become more readily available in the past few months, it tends to be more difficult for homeless individuals to access proper COVID-19-related healthcare, and to follow the CDC’s other guidelines, resulting in higher rates of infection within homeless populations. For unsheltered homeless individuals who seek refuge in outdoor settings, it is easier to socially distance from others and avoid close contact. However, these individuals are still susceptible to environmental threats, and they do not have easy access to sufficient sanitation or healthcare services.
Simultaneously, while homeless shelters and emergency facilities provide shelter to the homeless population and often provide access to healthcare services and facilities, these shelters are often packed and don’t allow for the physical distancing that the CDC suggests. Furthermore, the virus has led to an influx of homeless Americans flocking to shelters for refuge. With no way of knowing who these individuals have come in contact with, the possibility greatly increases that someone seeking refuge in a homeless shelter may be unknowingly carrying the virus with them. Therefore, illnesses spread more rapidly in these settings, and a virus as contagious as COVID-19 has the ability to infect the entire population taking shelter there.
As the coronavirus continues to increase the unemployment rate in the United States, more Americans are finding themselves with little to no source of income and fear that they may be at risk of losing their homes as well. With this economic downturn, experts are expecting the homeless population to grow, leading to more people finding themselves on the street, or in already overcrowded shelters. Whether living in a sheltered or unsheltered environment, the homeless are currently struggling to keep up with the suggested methods of virus prevention and are therefore at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, and our politicians are silent.
The inability to follow the CDC’s main guidelines for avoiding the spread of COVID-19 is truly the fundamental reason why the homeless population is at high risk for contracting the virus. One of the groups the CDC deems most vulnerable to contracting the virus are those with underlying medical conditions, and, unfortunately, the majority of those who are homeless fit into this category. Whether there is a global pandemic or not, living on the street or in an overcrowded shelter with little to no access to food, water, or healthcare, and with exposure to harmful weather conditions has the high potential of leading to disease, illness, or infection. According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, “People who are homeless have higher rates of illness and die on average 12 years sooner than the general U.S. population.” Seeing as the average lifespan of homeless individuals is shorter than the average American, it is frightening to think about how a highly contagious virus can continue to negatively impact the lives of the homeless population.
So, why is it important that we continue to stress this issue?
To put it simply, homelessness is a human rights issue that has been put aside for too long. One would hope that through all the efforts made by organizations dedicated to ending homelessness, Americans would feel compelled to take action and do whatever it takes to help these individuals. Unfortunately, many Americans unfairly stigmatize the homeless, so they are able to ignore the suffering of such individuals in our nation. However, we must realize that as the United States tackles COVID-19, now is also the time to see how homelessness affects us all. As many advocates in the fight against homelessness have echoed, “[T]he nation will remain only as healthy as its less fortunate residents.”
While this is an ideal that should always be present in our nation, it is crucially important during the pandemic. If the United States continues to ignore the hundreds of thousands of homeless individuals who are at a high risk of contracting COVID-19, we ignore hundreds of thousands of Americans who could potentially be at risk of further spreading the virus or suffering from the effects of the virus themselves. Therefore, as we evaluate the ways to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in our nation, we can utilize these conversations to reevaluate the ways in which we can help the homeless population as well.
In review, the homelessness epidemic in the United States is simply a matter of human rights, and it is always our responsibility to protect all of the citizens in our nation. This effort must continue.
AJ Walker is 16 years old. He lives in New York City and attends Horace Mann School. He is a firm believer in the quote “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he writes to do his part in raising awareness about injustices that occur in the U.S. and around the world.