The global pandemic of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 is rippling through the global economy as stocks plunge, schools close, major events are canceled, a growing number of businesses are advising employees to work from home or take leave, and the U.S. bans travel to and from Europe.
For homeless Americans, the virus could be especially dangerous. And the closing of schools which homeless children often rely on for meals and childcare could make matters worse.
A Vulnerable Population
The Center for Disease Control reports older adults and those with serious chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease, are most at risk of getting very sick as a result of contracting the coronavirus.
Seth Kurzban, a social work professor at the University of Southern California told The Globe Post many homeless people fall into those categories and may also have pre-existing mental health conditions.
“On average, individuals who are homeless in mental health are already likely to live 25 years less as it is,” Kurzban said. “You add all that together and it’s kind of a perfect storm for a population that really is probably going to not do well in fighting off the COVID-19 virus.”
In the United States, the homeless population consisted of 552,830 people as of January 2018 according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The City of Los Angeles is home to nearly 60,000 of them.
Stephen Cue Jn-Marie is a homelessness activist, as well as the founder and pastor of the “Church Without Walls” in Skid Row, a neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles in which thousands of homeless angelinos reside.
Jn Marie’s church holds services for homeless people on Skid Row and provides them with toiletries and clothes, among other things. He said he worries that it may be difficult for individuals sleeping in shelters or missions to isolate themselves and prevent the spread of the virus if necessary.
“For us, a mission may be a death sentence, and we’re concerned about how folks are going to respond if someone who’s in the mission comes down with coronavirus,” Jn-Marie told The Globe Post.
“We’re concerned that if coronavirus hits Skid Row, a lot of people are going to die.”
Schools, Childcare, and Food Insecurity
The closure of schools could serve to make matters even worse, leaving homeless Americans without a place to leave their kids while they go work.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are over 130 thousand public and private schools in the U.S. with 50.8 million students.
As of this writing, 18,700 schools in the U.S. have closed or are scheduled to close according to an Education Week analysis and the closures are expected to affect more than 8.1 million students.
“For many American children, their only solid meals come from school breakfast or school lunch, and so a big part of this isn’t just that they’re going to miss the education part,” Kurzban said. “They’re going to miss meals their family otherwise cannot afford, so that’s another big concern.”
Yvonne Vissing, a professor of healthcare studies at Salem State University, told The Globe Post the luxuries many Americans take for granted when they get sick such as health insurance, a warm bed or couch to lay on, a refrigerator with juice in it to stay hydrated, or readily available Tylenol to help with a fever are simply not accessible or affordable for many homeless people.
“I cannot imagine trying to be poor and trying to manage children and trying to get to work or not lose my job and knowing that if I don’t go to work, I don’t have any pay, and I don’t have any health insurance, so I can’t go to the doctor,” Vissing said. “I mean, poverty is such an enormous disease in and of itself.”
The problem for homeless Americans is much more systemic and goes far beyond just COVID-19. According to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. has the highest level of income inequality of any of the G7 countries, with a racial wealth gap that has persisted over more than 40 years.
Additionally, the wealth gap between America’s richest and poorest families has more than doubled in the years since 1989.
Kurzban said that while the COVID-19 pandemic is a concerning prospect for the homeless, income inequality has been a major contributing factor in the heightened vulnerability of homeless Americans.
This is the kind of approach to a human crisis that we need. ⬇️
We can't leave anyone out!
✔Stop all evictions & foreclosures
✔Halt on mortgage payments
✔Moratorium on water + utility shutoffs
✔Allow for paid sick leave
✔⬆️ Funding for homeless services, food & health care https://t.co/a62bLdG4b3
— Rashida Tlaib (@RashidaTlaib) March 13, 2020
“When a pandemic hits, you really highlight that we are just not living in a society that can handle this kind of stress – that there’s just too many hungry kids and families, too many hungry families, depending on paychecks to stay housed with too many homeless,” Kurzban said.
“Really just the inequality we’ve seen over the last few decades, I think is really playing out in this pandemic.”
The Democratic-led House of Representatives was nearing a deal with the White House Friday for a sweeping emergency aid package intended to blunt the economic impact of the global pandemic on American workers and businesses.
The package includes measures to eliminate out of pocket expenses for COVID-19 testing, expand unemployment benefits, and guarantee two weeks of paid sick leave.
Additionally, the legislation includes increased Medicaid funding and resources for food banks, senior and student meals, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.
Republicans had initially expressed resistance to the aid package, criticizing it for being “partisan and unworkable,” but lawmakers were eager to strike a deal before heading to next week’s House recess. While the House plans to vote on the package before the end of the week, The GOP-controlled Senate will hold a vote next week.