What Cities Can Do to Help the Homeless during the Coronavirus pandemic

As the country scrambles to contain the coronavirus, which has already sickened more than 166,000 people, US officials are still grappling with how to handle the crisis.

The number of sick people in the nation climbed to 3,774 cases and 69 deaths as of March 16. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Sunday that New York City will join dozens of other states in closing schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended on Sunday that there should be no mass gatherings of 50 people or more to be held in the U.S. for the next eight weeks.

Despite all the travel bans and curfews set in places like Puerto Rico and cities like Hoboken, New Jersey, some are concerned about how big cities are going to care for people who are experiencing homelessness during this pandemic.

How people experiencing homelessness are at risk

According to a recent article from The New York Times, “550,000 people currently homeless across the United States have a double vulnerability to the coronavirus,” because those who are unhoused are more likely to contract the virus.

People who are experiencing homelessness are susceptible to many diseases. In 2019, the California Health Department found that there were 167 cases of typhus from January 2018 to February 2019, according to Kaiser Health News. Tuberculosis, an infectious bacterial disease that affects the lungs, is another disease that many homeless people can contract.

Steve Berg, Vice President for Programs and Policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, told The North Star that crowded living shelters are the reasons why people who are experiencing homeless can easily contract infectious diseases and viruses like coronavirus, which is also known as COVID-19.

“Homeless people are probably at a heightened risk to contract a disease because they are living in crowded shelters a lot of the time where a lot of people are packed close together,” said Berg.

Berg said people who are the ages of 50 or older are among the growing part of the homeless population in many areas. He said many people who are unhoused have different kinds of disabilities including respiratory diseases.

“This leaves them at risk of getting very severe pneumonia, which is the main cause of death from coronavirus so far. It’s both in terms of contracting the disease and then having things happen if you do get the disease, homelessness is a grim outlook,” Berg told TNS.

How cities can help

Organizations like the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty are urging public health experts who are leading the nation in the fight against the pandemic to keep people who are experiencing homelessness in mind. In a statement to TNS, the center stated that some people who are homeless do not have access to laundry services or water for handwashing or personal hygiene. The center also fears the increase of the criminalization of the homeless during the pandemic.

“I am so worried about the potential impact of the coronavirus on people experiencing homelessness—not just because of the harm to people who are especially vulnerable, but also because of the very real potential for even more stigma and criminalization,” Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said in a statement. “This crisis makes crystal clear that ensuring stable housing not [only] helps the people most directly affected, it also benefits entire communities.”

A homeless woman going by the name of Miss Bee, left, seeks donations at an outdoor produce market in Boston, Saturday, March 14, 2020 (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer).

The center stated that housing is a human right as it “provides stability for a functioning immune system, the infrastructure for handwashing and sanitation, and the safety for rest, sleep, proper nutrition, and social distancing.”

Some cities are already trying to help the homeless. On March 10, New York City released guidelines instructing homeless shelters and other congregate settings like assisted living facilities, prisons and group homes can limit the transmission of COVID-19. California Governor Gavin Newsom stated on Sunday that the state will use private hotels and motels to house homeless people as the virus continues to rapidly spread, The Sacramento Bee reported.

Newsom reportedly said the measures will “get people out of encampments and into environments where we can address their growing anxiety and our growing concern about the health of some of our most vulnerable Californians,” according to The Sacramento Bee.

Berg from the National Alliance to End Homelessness told TNS that there are too many homeless people and no one should be living outside or in congregated shelters, especially with the recent virus outbreak. He also recommended that states should figure out ways to ensure that hand sanitizing stations and hand washing stations are available to people who are homeless.

“It’s important that cities, states and federal agencies are using every avenue they have to get homeless people into housing,” Berg told TNS.

How you can help

Berg urged people who wanted to help to make sure that they are not trying to spread the disease by practicing good hygiene and using basic prevention methods. He also said there are local homeless shelter programs that have a lot of work to do to combat the coronavirus, noting that people should donate hand sanitizers to homeless shelters that need them.

“There are homeless outreach teams who want to distribute hand sanitizers to people living on the street but they can’t find any for sale because people are stocked up on it,” said Berg. “People who are stocked up on hand sanitizer might want to think about donating it to a local homeless shelter program.”

He also urged citizens to contact their local lawmakers and congressional representatives to express their concerns about people who are experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic.

To learn more about how to contact your elected officials, click here. To find a local homeless shelter in your area to donate hand sanitizer and other goods and items, click here. You can also donate to national organizations like the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Alliance to End Homelessness.