Coronavirus exposes “people that we missed” amid homelessness crisis

Photo of people gathered in front of the Wilson Building

Members of the People for Fairness Coalition gathered in front of the Wilson Building for an overnight vigil preceding their press conference. Photo by Thomas Ratliff

At a press conference commemorating Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day on Dec. 21, leaders of the People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC) laid out their demands for D.C.: a $1.5 billion increase in spending on adding and maintaining affordable housing, the implementation of a coronavirus housing plan, and support for anti-discrimination legislation protecting people experiencing homelessness. 

The coronavirus pandemic took resources away from unsheltered people this year, making action from lawmakers even more necessary, the activists said. One economist estimates homelessness in the District will rise by 6.6% if things continue as they are.

“There is no true increase of homelessness due to COVID,” said PFFC’s advocacy director, Reginald Black, who is also a vendor and artist with Street Sense Media. “COVID is revealing the unhoused people that we missed.”

Advocates counted at least 79 people who died while unhoused in D.C. this year, three of whom were added during a memorial service that preceded the press conference. Street Sense Media added two names to that list based on our obituary for Anthony Denico Williams, 20, who was killed in February and our reporting about the death of Devonne Harris, 62, was struck and killed by a Metropolitan Police Department officer while crossing the street.

[Read more: Advocacy events surrounding this year’s Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, including an overnight vigil, began yesterday]

Each year, this number is assumed to be an undercount. In 2019, 81 people were remembered at the vigil but a records request the Washington Post filed with the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner later confirmed 117 people experiencing homelessness had died. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that between 17,500 and 45,000 people died without a home nationwide.

Those who died in D.C. in 2020 ranged in age from 20 to 80 years old. Many people on the list were acknowledged only by age and some by initials or first name only, for privacy reasons. Twenty-three deaths were caused by COVID-19, according to city data.

Black said that to prevent more deaths from the virus, officials need to give the homeless community housing where they can social distance. At the press conference, he highlighted  PFFC’s Vacant to Virus-Reduction plan, which asks the D.C. government to house people in 10,000 vacant units across 3,000 buildings in D.C. 

The District’s total COVID-19 infection rate has surged over the past few weeks, prompting more public health restrictions like shutting down indoor dining. D.C. shelters reported more than 30 new cases of COVID-19 in December, according to Department of Human Services data. 

[Read more: Uptick in COVID-19 also reaches D.C. shelters]

PFFC also called on Mayor Muriel Bowser and the D.C. Council to focus on policies that prevent people without homes and with low incomes from being discriminated against when trying to obtain housing. The Michael A. Stoops Anti-Discrimination Act and the Fair Tenant Screening Act combined are just one part of creating “true housing equity” in D.C., Black said. Both bills were introduced in the last legislative session but did not receive a vote. They will need to be re-introduced if the D.C. Council wishes to pursue either bill.

Black said a spending increase is necessary to produce more public housing units and to fund housing interventions, including $430 million to repair the District’s crumbling public housing stock and to create new public housing units. In 2019, D.C. Housing Authority Director Tyrone Garret estimated it would take $2.2 billion over 17 years — which equates to $129 million annually —  to “rehabilitate and redevelop” the city’s existing public housing portfolio without adding any new capacity..

The rest of the $1.5 billion PFFC proposed would be split between the Housing Production Trust Fund and various housing interventions.

The pandemic has put these spending increases in jeopardy. Though the PFFC proposes taking funding out of the Metropolitan Police Department budget to free up funds, Bowser has already announced plans to cut funding from nonprofits that serve homeless residents to make up for budget shortfalls.  

[Read more: DC is cutting funding for homeless services as COVID cases surge]

Adjoa A. Aiyetoro, a facilitator for the Unhoused Collective of the National Conference of Black Lawyers, said even though the scope of the cuts is currently unknown, any cuts to staff and programming will directly affect the number of people able to be housed in shelters. Cuts to nonprofits that provide meals also mean people without housing will struggle to find food, she said.

“How can a city be so unconcerned about people?” she asked, rhetorically, at the press conference. 

Andrew Anderson, a member of the PFFC, said resources are scarce for former prisoners and more engagement from the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs could help keep people off the street. More than half of the people experiencing homelessness in D.C. were formerly incarcerated and about the same rate of people report their incarceration caused their homelessness, according to a D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute report released this year. 

“It’s disheartening because you actually have to fend for yourself once you’re on the street,” Anderson said. 

[Read more: Nonprofit explores what it will take to provide immediate housing for returning citizens]

The pandemic has exacerbated this existing problem as well, Anderson added. Key documents that former inmates need to get a job or housing can only be accessed at government offices whose hours and staffing have been affected by the health emergency, he said. 

List of names of people who died while homeless or after recently getting housing
List of names of people who died while homeless or after recently getting housing

Beyond resource limitations, living in shelters during a pandemic means being at higher risk for infection, Anderson said. He lives in the New York Avenue Men’s Shelter where he said there is little education about how to follow CDC guidelines like mask-wearing and social distancing. Shelters residents have made this claim since the onset of the pandemic. A Street Sense Media analysis found that people experiencing homelessness test positive for COVID-19 three times as often as the average D.C. resident.

“Once you enter that shelter, there’s no such thing as social distancing,” Anderson said.

Residents have reported other issues with shelter living during the health crisis such as the disruption of frequent sanitations and restrictions on personal belongings.  

[Read more: Low-barrier shelter residents say staff abuse them amid ‘terrible’ conditions during COVID-19]

Queenie Featherstone, a member of the PFFC and a Street Sense Media vendor and artist, said she, like other people who experience housing instability, is willing to work and pay “reasonable” prices for housing but that there are not enough “reasonable” housing accommodations for everyone who needs them.  

“That’s hell,” Featherstone said. 

Some demonstrators at the press conference were mourning deceased friends or family members. One memorialized community member was Karim El-Amin, who had been homeless and advocated in the community for nearly a decade. He was living in an encampment on E Street NW when he died earlier this month and would have turned 43 this week.

Qaadir El-Amin remembered his brother as out-going and sociable, making friends everywhere he went. 

[Disclosure: This reporter donated to a GoFundMe to help cover Karim El-Amin’s funeral costs]  

“He always had to be talking and he had people laughing,” El-Amin said. “He moved around about every two years and no matter where he moved to, from the first couple months, he had a whole lot of friends.”

Another memorialized community member was Darryl Finney, a man experiencing homelessness who was murdered by an arsonist. The morning of the press conference, activists wrote his name on the sidewalk in front of the Wilson Building, putting a spotlight on the increased risk of hate crimes that people experiencing homelessness face every day. 

In addition to the 76 people known to have died without housing in D.C. in 2020, advocates called attention to 148* individuals who moved into housing but died shortly after doing so. According to the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council, people experiencing homelessness die an average of 12 years sooner than the general U.S. population.

*Street Sense Media has also added a name to this list, Artist/Vendor Dan Hooks.

Issues |Civil Rights|COVID-19|Criminalization of Homelessness|Death|Housing

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