Dave “Dogdave” Hirschman, a 53-year-old man who has been experiencing homelessness since 1984, is starting to lose hope. Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, he lost his shelter at a “city-sanctioned homeless camp” in Eugene, Oregon, and the vision in his left eye due to a stroke. He says the shelters near him are prioritizing Covid-19 patients, a reasonable measure that has nonetheless left him to sleep in a doorway. “I am sick now. I am finding blood in the Kleenex when I clear my sinuses,” he says. “There are quite a few folks out here who are in as dire straits as I am, that feel forgotten and abandoned. I can say for certain that without obtaining housing soon, I have no way of making it through the winter.”
Unhoused people all over the country are struggling profoundly during the pandemic, whether they’ve been experiencing homelessness for as long as Hirschman has or have only recently fallen on hard times. A college student studying computer science in Kentucky, who wished to remain anonymous, became homeless during the pandemic after having to choose between paying for classes and making rent. Social distancing left them without couches to sleep on. They consider themselves fortunate: They are mentally healthy, and have a phone and laptop. “Without technology, I don’t know where I’d be. I’m calling a day or two ahead to make sure I can reserve a bed at the homeless shelter,” they say. “It’s brutally cold. You can’t sleep outside. You will die.”
Experiencing homelessness has always been a dire health risk, and Covid-19 has only worsened that danger. Unhoused people are disproportionately affected by health conditions that can make coronavirus cases more severe, and are often forced to shelter, eat, and access hygiene in congregate settings where social distance is difficult to maintain. Experts knew this from the start, and they have launched heroic efforts to create safe places for unhoused people to shelter and quarantine during the pandemic. Many of those programs, especially those that placed homeless people in empty hotel rooms, have been successful. Now, under the Biden administration, advocates are hopeful that they’ll be able to expand and improve those programs, and treat homelessness as the solvable problem it is.
Before the pandemic began, rates of homelessness were at the highest they’d been in the United States in 20 years. While data is still forthcoming, it’s hard to imagine that the pandemic wouldn’t have worsened them. “We know that a lot of nearly homeless people were living in doubled-up situations, and because of the pandemic they may have been forced out,” says Gary Painter, a social innovation researcher at the University of Southern California who specializes in affordable housing. “The most likely scenario for those people is they end up living in their cars.” For people who were already experiencing homelessness at the beginning of the pandemic, Covid-19 was instantly world-altering. “In the early days, particularly for homeless people with significant mental health disorders, people were absolutely confused. Where did all the people go?” says Carol Wilkins, a consultant who specializes in the connections between housing, health, and homelessness. “The ways they had of getting food and getting money to get food had disappeared. People were hungry.”
Then help arrived for some. “During the height of the initial wave—April, May, June 2020—people started putting so much money into homelessness,” says Drew Capone, a water sanitation and hygiene researcher at Georgia Tech who has studied homelessness. Additional funding was also made available to shelters and organizations fighting homelessness through the Cares Act and other forms of government assistance, which allowed states like California to find innovative ways to house people safely. “The most important action that was taken was Project Roomkey,” says Painter, referring to the effort to move high-risk people from the streets or congregate shelters into unsused hotel rooms. “It was successful at two things: preventing large numbers of homeless individuals and families from actually contracting Covid, and moving people inside at very high rates.”
Compared to last spring, when it seemed that all the Covid-19 pandemic would bring to America’s unhoused population was sickness and hunger, there’s now rather a lot of good news. Project Roomkey worked so well that by June it had moved into its second act, Project Homekey, which is using state and federal funding to buy hotels and convert them into more permanent living situations for unhoused people. States like Oregon, New Mexico, Minnesota, and Vermont are experimenting with similar programs. “We don’t have the data to be definitive, but eviction moratoriums also probably kept some people in their homes that may have been forced to the streets,” Painter says. While significant outbreaks have occurred in shelters in Boston and Seattle, rates of Covid-19 among people experiencing homelessness have also been lower than initially anticipated, staying either lower or keeping pace with rates in the general population. In the long view, however, that may not really be something to celebrate: “Health care providers I spoke to were attributing that to the extraordinary social isolation among these people,” Wilkins says.
Amidst these positives are stories like Hirschman’s. While CDC recommendations for Covid-19 safe shelters seem to have prevented more major outbreaks, they have also reduced shelter capacity. Shelters are overwhelmed even in states like California, and most states lack both California’s funds and political will to solve this issue. “I don’t spend a whole lot of time paying attention to politics, but it’s stunning to me, the lack of any real tangible assistance that’s been forthcoming,” says the college student in Kentucky. “I’m willing to work. I’ll do anything.” Many of the people experiencing homelessness WIRED spoke to feel the same way. Assistance hasn’t just been inconsistent from state to state, it’s been coming in unpredictable fits and starts. “The relief is extremely intermittent. I wish I could have a schedule and know they’re going to be sending out these checks at this time,” says the college student. “You don’t know what you’re going to get.”
That financial uncertainty has plagued unhoused individuals and organizations fighting homelessness alike throughout the pandemic, often for political reasons. According to Wilkins, questions of how much and how long to fund programs like Project Roomkey became bitter battles within the US Department of Housing and Urban Development as President Trump’s appointees fought to restrict how funding could be used. Among advocates, the Biden administration is being almost universally met with cautious optimism. During his campaign, the president promised to make housing assistance available to everyone who is eligible, and he is the first winning candidate to include that on his platform. “For as long as I can remember, [the Section 8 housing voucher program] has only been able to provide funding to about a quarter of the people who need it,” says Steve Berg, vice president of program and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “That would be a night-and-day change for all kinds of issues related to housing and homelessness.”
It’s too early to say if Biden will keep all of his campaign promises, but he has already signed an executive order stating that FEMA should reimburse 100 percent of what states spend to house people in non-congregate shelters, all the way through September 2021. Advocates are waxing biblical; Fox News is apoplectic. “The answer to homelessness has always been getting people into housing,” Berg says. “We’ve just never been able to get governments to invest enough money to do the whole job.” This year, they might finally be able to make it work.
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