Now more than ever, we need to do more for people experiencing homelessness

Alane Celeste-Villalvir is a candidate for the Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health. She is currently a Health Policy Research Scholar, a program of The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging for all of us. It’s even more challenging if you’re a person experiencing homelessness. There are things Houston, and other cities, can do to make it better for them, and in doing so, for everyone.

Staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic is demanding for everyone. It requires regular hand washing, mask wearing, and maintaining physical distance from people who are sick. Many have had to juggle working from home while managing children, as well as being separate from friends, colleagues, and loved ones. And, the economic downturn has cost many jobs and health insurance.

As hard as that is, the experience of COVID-19 for people who are homeless is even more challenging. When Texas’ stay-at-home order went into effect, Delandro (age 38) had no home to go to. A full-time student released from an 18-month recovery facility, he’s staying in his car and fighting against relapse. Like others experiencing homelessness, Delandro lacks a place to wash his hands and has difficulty managing acute and chronic disease, mental illness, and substance use disorders. Being homeless makes everything more difficult.

Ada, a 51-year old woman living with throat cancer and experiencing homelessness shared that, “It’s even harder when just simple things like the use of a bathroom, you can’t have it,” she said. “And you can’t use a telephone. And you’re sleeping on concrete with open wounds.”

The intersection of COVID-19 and homelessness is particularly acute for African Americans in Texas. Texas is among the states with the highest number of COVID-19 cases with 471,966 cases79,543 of which are in Harris County, where Houston is located. In Houston, African Americans make up 23% of the population but 66% of COVID-19 deaths. One reason is homelessness. More than half of Houston’s homeless population is African American.

There are organizations to help people experiencing homelessness, but their resources have been stretched thin.

Lord of the Streets (LOTS), a nonprofit serving people experiencing homelessness, has seen a spike in the need for food, as several Houston agencies have closed or changed their operations due to COVID-19. The demand for food has increased so much, that they served 333 meals in a single day in April, more than two times their normal level.

Social services to alleviate hunger and food insecurity, like SNAP, can also help. But they’re not easy to access. “Food stamps were extended until the end of June, said Will Symmes, Director of Volunteers at LOTS. “But, if you are new, you had to do it via the phone. Well, not all homeless people have a phone.”

Herman, who was seeking services at LOTS, reiterated the challenges with lacking access to technology. “You gotta have an appointment for everything. If you ain’t on the computer and you don’t know nothing about the online stuff, you gonna be in last place.”

The Beacon, another community organization providing services to people experiencing homelessness, has also seen a spike in the need for services. It went from serving about 1500 meals a week to about 7700 meals a week. “The reason for that is because some of the other food service providers had to close or were very limited in what they were able to do for a period of time,” said Becky Landes, CEO of The Beacon.

There’s more we could do. To improve the quality of life of people experiencing homelessness and lower their COVID-19 risk, cities must increase access to showers and other hygiene resources, safe places to sleep, and social services like SNAP. Homeless service providers must become hot spots for COVID-19 testing, with easy access to hand-washing stations, bathrooms, showers, food, and personal protective equipment.

Many advocates recommend connecting people experiencing homelessness to housing as soon as possible, while also making other social services easily accessible — an approach known as “housing first.” In response to alarmingly high rates of COVID-19 infections in homeless shelters , cities such as New York and San Francisco have moved individuals from shelters to hotels. San Francisco has been sanctioning homeless encampments and labeling them as socially distant “Safe Sleeping Sites,” providing individuals with tents, showers, and other services. Similar programs have been implemented in Atlanta and West Virginia.

In Houston, the Community-wide COVID-19 Housing Program, is a step in the right direction. This $65-billion collaborative effort between The City of Houston, Harris County, and Coalition for the Homeless plans to provide permanent housing to 5,000 individuals experiencing homelessness over the next two years in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The challenges faced by people experiencing homelessness intensify the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which harms everyone. Flattening the curve demands that we not forget society’s most disenfranchised groups, including people experiencing homelessness. Now is not the time to back down in our fight against homelessness — we have to ramp it up. Protecting people experiencing homelessness both helps them and helps keeps us all safe.

The opinions expressed by Alane Celeste-Villalvir are her own and do not represent those of University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health. 

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