In a time when we’re constantly under scrutiny for our ability to isolate ourselves and disinfect our surroundings with a never-before-seen intensity, one’s moral obligations to not only protect themselves but their greater communities conflict with the real world obstacles in place to do so. As a rational, but critically disregarded consequence of many people’s disproportionate well-being pre-coronavirus, the homeless populations of our cities have been one of the most fervently exposed groups during this time. Although this country has long ignored both the obvious standards of health and self-professed needs of those struggling with homelessness, the continuation of this societal attitude during a literal pandemic jeopardizes the fulfillment of everyone’s individual, though fundamentally collective, responsibilities.
Today, the situation has evolved into what Dr. Margot Kushel, a national expert on homelessness and medical professor at the University of California San Francisco, has called a “crisis within a crisis.” Highlighting the poorer well-being of homeless populations compared to their societal counterparts even before COVID-19 hit with full force, Kushel also noted the consequence of widespread institutional restrictions and closures on this group as well. While it’s true that the limited operation of businesses has cut down on access to food and water, significantly for those who critically depend on their local businesses, it also extends to the operations and to the availability of shelter space. In an effort to get as many people as possible off the streets, shelters country-wide have been struggling to simultaneously increase their capacity while still maintaining proper social distancing standards. This isn’t only targeted at keeping shelter occupants safe, but the facility’s critical operators, volunteers and workers too. These circumstances are further complicated by the fact that although others who live in shared quarters with common interpersonal exchanges are also incredibly susceptible to contracting disease — like those incarcerated or hospice residents — homeless individuals are faced with separate and unique sets of challenges.
Being the most transparent issue of the bunch, homeless populations consistently interact with the general public more than any other high-risk groups. Often stuck in a never-ending cycle of confinement to poor environments, the homeless often face little access to living and cleaning facilities which help maintain and improve personal hygiene and overall health. As a consistent result, they have rates of respiratory infections far higher than those of the general population. Although standardly plaguing the lives of these individuals truly trying to survive in any way they can, intensifying stress levels met with increasingly enforced isolation greatly exacerbates the threats posed by COVID-19. Apart from the physical risk, the mental toll this time has had on us all has also been comprehensively recognized. However, all these factors combined puts insurmountable stress on the serious mental illnesses and health conditions a great amount of homeless populations have been afflicted with.
Whereas the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is the main federal agency that oversees programs targeted at homeless populations, it has not required any of its branches to conduct investigations into either the infection and/or death rates of this understatedly vulnerable and high-risk group. This may be unsurprising, as our national response to COVID-19 has been, for the most part, a sentiment along the lines of “Leave it up to the states to deal with the details.” Failing to implement a unified country-wide strategy, our governments’ lack of coordination, and even simple willpower, to trace the pandemic’s response on homeless populations and provide more resources for testing is more than worthy of criticism. Although this statement may lead some to point to $4 million and more Congress allocated to homeless-specific programs as part of the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, such a move would be in vain. It’s important to note that not only did this money take months to get into communities, but took even longer for the government to authorize its localized use.
In Binghamton specifically, over a million dollars were received in June as a result of two rounds of federal grants, including the Emergency Shelter Grant (ESG). Mayor Richard C. David pledged the funds would go to nonprofits providing help to the homeless, low-income families and small businesses affected by COVID, as well as toward general testing. Still, he stressed the funds’ main challenge was the absence of “authorization from the federal government to distribute it.” Over a month later, it was announced that the HUD had authorized the city of Binghamton to finally begin spending its much-needed relief funding. Essentially, the government’s neglect to timely and effectively distribute aid into communities, and further, to actually authorize its use, not only prolonged citizens’ desperation during such a crucial moment, but increased local competition over a finite pool of funds. As time went on, not only were a higher number of people seeking the same benefits, but there became more institutional areas — out of the multiple already considered — to which the aid could contribute. It’s hard to imagine that any one individual, let alone someone with no safety net to begin with, would’ve been able to dramatically improve their financial and housing situation from the government’s pitiful helping hand.
By definition, a stay-at-home order is impossible to comply with when you have nowhere to go. With no nationwide mechanism in place to measure, never mind combat, the effect of COVID-19 on such a substantial and defenseless part of our population, we continue to expand the rift of disproportionate care targeted to those in need. Putting its federal obligations in the hands of even more disorganized and resourceless groups, HUD has neglected to utilize its Homeless Management Information System, arguably, during one of the most necessary times to do so. Though providing community guidance on the type of information to collect if desired by local governments and organizations, the deeper issue exposed during this sub-crisis regards the absence of structural and institutionally based safety nets. The lesson to learn from this country’s neglectful attitude toward its homeless populations, especially now, is straightforwardly that they don’t care. To make any progress in damage control, aimed at reversing decades worth of mounting challenges since ignored for our homeless populations, a shift in our cultural attitude is imperative. In the words of Bobby Watts, chief executive of National Health Care for the Homeless Council, we must understand once and for all: “Housing is health care.”
Miranda Jackson-Nudelman is a senior majoring in political science.