Homelessness in the US is at a record high, much of which is due to the effects of COVID-19 on job security, rent payments, and healthcare. As colder winter months approach, it is crucial for programs, initiatives, and communities to adapt care for those who experience homelessness, particularly as this population is at additional risk of contracting coronavirus.
THE HOLIDAYS AND HOMELESSNESS
People across the US are gearing up for the usual stress of the holiday season coupled with the added uncertainty of COVID-19. Many states have issued stay-at-home orders to deal with rising coronavirus cases, and families are deciding if—and how—to celebrate the holidays with those they love.
Inside this national emergency, however, is another crisis: experts predict that as many as 250,000 Americans will be experiencing homelessness for the first time this winter, adding to the already 500,000 people homeless on a given night in the US1. With homelessness support programs already mired down by cutting available beds and services due to COVID-19 precautions, thousands of Americans will be left without essential services such as running water, bathrooms, and shelter.
WHY THE SUDDEN UPTICK?
Although homelessness has been on an overall decline since 20072, 2020 has seen a sharp rise in homeless cases. This shift is due, most directly, to the novel coronavirus, which has led to unprecedented unemployment levels3, in turn correlating with eviction and ultimately homelessness. Shelters have been forced to reduce bed numbers to maintain social distancing, meaning that less and less people experiencing homelessness are able to secure shelter on a given night.
Additionally, logistical care for those being tested for coronavirus infection (including isolation areas for those awaiting test results, quarantine space for those who have tested positive, and protective housing for those most at risk) is simply not feasible4. People experiencing homelessness are one of the highest risk groups for contracting COVID-19 because they cannot perform the most basic CDC guidelines for preventative care, such as regular hand washing and social isolation.
COVID-19 has created a spiral of risk for people experiencing homelessness, forcing more people out of secure housing and into living situations that put them at higher exposure to and heightened risk of serious health complications.
INCREASED DIFFICULTY AS WINTER SETS IN
With more Americans experiencing homelessness, health experts are expressing increased anxiety over winter living conditions. On average, over 1,300 Americans die each year from exposure to excessive, natural cold5, and many predict 2020 to see an increase in this number. For those who survive the freezing temperatures, they still often face frostbite, hypothermia, and uncontrollable shivers6. Now is the time when programs are most in need and people are most at risk.
HOW PROGRAMS CAN ADAPT
The CDC recommends the best course of action for programs to adapt to COVID-19 risk while caring for those who experience homelessness is to implement a whole community approach7. Such an approach entails increased communication with neighboring shelters, data cooperation through case management systems like ClientTrack, and enhanced information dispersion to those using homeless services.
Some cities have seen successful at mitigating the homeless-coronavirus crisis through community coordination with local businesses. San Diego, for example, converted its unused stadium into additional shelter for hundreds of locals8. While an innovative short-term solution, electricity and water usage cost the city over $40 million and suggests that communities still need to develop more sustainable solutions. While homeless populations handle COVID-19, however, converting stadiums and other unused businesses into shelters may be the most prudent option.
For communities that don’t have access to buildings like San Diego’s stadium, both the CDC and other experts caution against clearing encampments9. Doing so cuts connections with healthcare providers and increases both exposure and spread of the coronavirus. Allowing encampments to remain where they are at will best protect those living in such areas—instead, programs can help implement social isolation measures in such places to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
On an individual level, the holidays are a salient time to contribute to community efforts for ending homelessness. Shelters need donations most during the winter to combat the cold, these donations can include socks, blankets, and coats (9). Community members are encouraged to participate in socially-distant clothing drives, food donation events, and other volunteer opportunities—all of which are great alternatives to social gatherings.
More than anything, it is important to remember that no matter where you are, there is someone in your city who is trying to survive the winter without a home. As programs, initiatives, and individuals come together within their communities to help those experiencing homelessness, we can work towards a safer and healthier future.