To combat the spread of the Coronavirus, countries around the world have adopted social distancing measures and stay at home orders. In addition to the stay at home orders, individuals are being encouraged to wash their hands often and to maintain a much higher level of personal hygiene than they normally would. These measures and recommendations are important to keep people safe because they help slow the spread of the virus and ensure that hospitals have sufficient capacity to handle patients with more severe symptoms. However, for individuals experiencing homelessness, these safety precautions are not an option.
In the United States today, there are approximately 575,000 individuals experiencing homelessness, and this is considered an undercount. Many individuals and families experiencing homelessness live in densely populated areas that have been heavily impacted by the coronavirus, such as New York and Los Angeles. But aside from geographical location, there are a multitude of other factors that contribute to the vulnerability of the homeless population to COVID-19.
Without permanent housing, individuals experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity often have inadequate access to hygiene and healthcare services, and are often more exposed to harsh outdoor elements. This makes them more susceptible to experience life threatening complications if they contract COVID-19.
The very nature of homelessness leaves individuals highly susceptible to symptomatic infection, hospitalization, and fatality due in some cases to individuals’ advanced age, but also the accelerated physical decline and mental weathering that can frequently result from repeat exposure to harsh elements. Considering this, it may not be surprising that individuals experiencing homelessness are also admitted to the hospital with medical conditions 10-15 years earlier than comparable individuals living in housing.
Accounting for all these factors, there is great concern surrounding the potential for widespread transmission of COVID-19 within the homeless population. For individuals living without a home, or staying in temporary accommodations, this pandemic poses unprecedented challenges. Due to the contagious nature of COVID-19, staying in a shelter has now become an unsafe option for individuals and families that need to stay protected in quarantine during the pandemic.
Now more than ever, homelessness must be considered a public health priority. A public health emergency requires emergency solutions and crisis management. While there are already some initiatives that have made vacant hotels available for people to self isolate, we need to enact long term initiatives that will address homelessness as a public health issue.
We must also remember that support for people experiencing homelessness should not solely include those currently living outside, but should also protect individuals whose housing is vulnerable and are at a higher risk of homelessness because of the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak. Mortgage holidays have already been announced in several countries, but similar measures for renters, who are often more vulnerable in the short term, should also be developed and remain in place post pandemic to ensure stability. Specific measures that target the insecurely housed, such as a moratorium on evictions, would prevent people from losing their housing during the pandemic and should extend beyond the pandemic to ensure housing remains in place over the long term.
This ongoing global health crisis has made it increasingly evident that housing and health are inextricably linked. Housing is in fact a social determinant of health, however it is often overlooked when lawmakers craft health policies. But in circumstances when we are advised to stay home or self isolate, it becomes clear that housing is among the most important health settings in our lives. To help JOIN continue our mission of helping individuals and families in transition into safe, permanent housing, consider donating today.