By Dan Treglia
Dan Treglia is a Postdoctoral Fellow and an incoming Associate Professor of Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. Dan’s work addresses endemic social problems like homelessness and income inequality by combining rigorous research with experience in the government and nonprofit sectors. He has a PhD in Social Welfare from the University of Pennsylvania and a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Find him on Twitter at @dan_treglia.
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For the last six months, we’ve all been told to stay at home to stop the spread of the coronavirus. For the 2 million Americans experiencing homelessness each year, that’s not an option.
If you’re homeless, “shelter in place” choices put you between a rock and a hard place. If there is a bed, it’s likely to be in a facility where you eat and sleep in close quarters, without any social distancing. And, if you sleep unsheltered – like in streets or parks- you lack access to necessities like hygiene, meals, and protection from the elements. Adding to the risk, homeless adults are older and sicker than most others, with higher rates of chronic diseases, hospitalizations, and mortality.
Social injustices are exacerbated by COVID-19, and African Americans and people of color are disproportionately the victims of homelessness. Four in ten – or 226,000 – of the 570,000 people experiencing homelessness each night are Black even though they comprise only 13% of the U.S. population.
Homelessness is the result and manifestation of social inequities, and historical and contemporary discrimination in housing and housing assistance, healthcare access and treatment, employment, income assistance, and mass incarceration. These factors result in a disproportionate burden of homelessness and housing instability placed on racial and ethnic minorities. The dire impact of COVID-19 on the homeless population will overly impact African American communities In a report released in March, a team of collaborators and I projected that more than 25,000 of the 570,000 people experiencing homelessness each night would be hospitalized and 3,500 will die. These numbers are likely underestimated. When we factor in the turnover of homeless population and the likely increase in homelessness to come from a recession, these numbers could look like a pipe dream.
The urgency required to protect people experiencing homelessness cannot be overstated. Solutions must be immediate, immense, equitable, and sustained. , They must also simultaneously accomplish two distinct but related goals.
First, policymakers must protect people currently experiencing homelessness from COVID-19. Along with other measures, allow people to stay – in single-unit facilities like hotel and motel rooms and empty college dormitories. Eighty-three percent of communities responding to a recent survey said they secured hotel and motel rooms but, unfortunately, some of these arrangements are expiring. This, like other premature returns to normalcy, will likely result in unnecessary deaths and additional financial and capacity strain on already stressed health and social service systems.
Better, yet, move people into the permanent and stable housing, as Connecticut’s Columbus House and others have done.
Second: prevent homelessness for those at risk of losing their housing in the current economic turmoil. Columbia University economist Dan O’Flaherty projected that homelessness could jump 40-45% as a result of the COVID-19 induced recession, leading to more than 800,000 people homeless each night. This level, is unprecedented in recorded U.S. data (Hoovervilles preceded homelessness management information systems). He’s not the only one sounding the alarm.
Nearly half (47%) of renters 18-64 polled between March and April were having difficulty paying their rent. Thousands of tenants have missed payments, with communities of color reporting rates of nonpayment or deferral of May rent nearly 80% higher than their white counterparts.
Pre-COVID eviction rates exceeded foreclosure rates at the height of the 2008 housing crisis, and the eviction moratoria legislated in the CARES Act and enacted by state and local governments across the country will soon expire. Without further intervention, a deluge of evictions and homelessness is all but certain. Beyond representing a governmental failure, a 40% increase in homelessness would cripple already under-resourced nonprofits and local governments. It would also undermine strategies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among this highly vulnerable population.
It is not for want of solutions that keep the federal government from acting on this problem; it is a problem of political will. The $3 trillion HEROES Act, which includes 100,000 new emergency housing vouchers and $100 billion in emergency rental assistance, passed the House of Representatives largely along party lines and is currently sitting, stagnant, in the Senate.
If you’ve read to this point and reached my level of immediacy and outrage, you may be wondering how you can help.
1) Thank the cosponsors and Representatives who voted for the HEROES Act, and pressure Senate leaders to bring the bill to the floor. The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) has a guide here.
2) Donate to organizations fighting for macro-level change and providing coordination and guidance to local governments and providers. The NLIHC and the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), two organizations leading those charges, are worthy of your support.
3) Donate to local organizations providing shelter, housing, healthcare, and social services to people experiencing homelessness. They are the last line of defense and, as already stretched social service budgets are being cut, need your help now as much as ever.
This is a defining moment. Does the United States protect its most vulnerable or accept them as part of the steadily growing death count now relegated to collateral damage as we keep our eyes on the prize of a reopened economy? The current answer is as clear as it is unacceptable. We can, and must, do better.
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Donate here: Historianspeaks.org Paypal Link
Previously published on Historianspeaks.org.
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