For Homeless People, Covid-19 Is Horror on Top of Horror
Updated: Apr 3, 2020
As the coronavirus spreads, unhoused people are among the most vulnerable to infection.
“THERE IS NOTHING,” a desperate poster writes, and a dozen others agree. Online communities dedicated to homelessness, like Reddit’s r/homeless, were already places to vent about unlivable living situations, but as the Covid-19 outbreak continues, the challenges they face have only gotten more extreme. Shelters are full, or closed, or too fraught with coronavirus risk to consider sleeping in. They have no access to toilets, much less toilet paper. They’ve been laid off, and there’s nobody on the street so they can’t even panhandle. Common places to find shelter and a bathroom—libraries, gyms, fast food restaurants—are closed. Soup kitchens are closing, out of food, out of workers. The forums have become literal survival guides: How to set up a safe shelter in the forest; where to find an electrical outlet; how to clean yourself with dry leaves, newspaper, and isopropyl alcohol. “For everyone else this is ‘quarantine and chill,’”, “When you're homeless there is no quarantine, or chill. Unless you're the type that is comfortable laying on the ground in public.” Homelessness is incompatible with health. Experts like Margot Kushel, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco who studies homelessness, have been saying so for decades, but, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it's never been truer. “It’s a calamity. It’s our worst nightmare. “It’s an enormous crisis superimposed on an existing crisis.” Unhoused people are already among the most sick in society, and now they’re physically incapable of following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most basic virus-fighting directive: stay home. It’s nearly impossible for homeless people to maintain social distance. Their needs are met en masse. The CDC recommends 110 square feet per person for people housed together during the outbreak. Most homeless shelters simply don’t have that kind of space. “There has always been an increased risk of communicable diseases like tuberculosis, hepatitis A, and influenza. Covid-19 is just the newest addition to the list. Some shelters are rearranging the furniture to house people farther apart, but those adjustments inevitably mean fewer beds, leaving more people outdoors. In most of the countries , people are sleeping in parking lots, confined to white painted rectangles spaced six feet apart. Even before the outbreak, many homeless people were left totally unsheltered estimates some 600,000 homeless people around the world could end up infected with coronavirus, two thirds of the unhoused population lives outdoors, which is about twice the national average. Unsheltered people still rely on congregate settings to meet their basic needs, like food and hygiene, though the latter often goes unmet. “These mass feeding events, they have very good intentions, but they often don’t think about the public health side of things.