Temporary housing is the best approach for our public health to protect homeless people from coronavirus disease

A man in a wheelchair lifts up the edge of a tent in an underpass.

K Street encampment residents during a Sept. 19 cleanup. Photo by Sean McBride

Given close quarters, compromised immune systems, and an aging population, people experiencing homelessness are exceptionally vulnerable to communicable diseases  including the current outbreak of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. My colleagues at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and I anticipate that this virus will not only greatly affect the health of our most vulnerable community members, but also focus public attention on their rights and safety or lack thereof. What form this attention takes will be critically important.  

People living without adequate, permanent and stable housing lack regular access to a sink for frequent handwashing, a toilet and shower for personal hygiene, and a place to launder clothes. And homelessness itself threatens the immune system: sleep is cut short; nutrition is lacking; sanitation is scarce; health and dental care are nonexistent or put off until too late for fear of medical bills that cannot be paid. 

Housing ends homelessness, and the implications of not ensuring it are now more obvious than ever: the current crisis makes crystal clear that ensuring stable housing not only helps the people most directly affected, it also benefits entire communities. At the same time, immediate attention to the health and safety of homeless people is essential, with guidance from public health experts. But I worry that the coronavirus crisis will not only harm the health of people experiencing homelessness, but that it will also lead to even more stigma and criminalization.  

President Trump’s narrative about people experiencing homelessness  including claiming without evidence that police officers are getting sick from their interactions  is extremely harmful, and his administration has already considered policies that would raze homeless encampments and force people experiencing homelessness into mega-tent shelters, under the guise of public health and safety. However, criminalization of homelessness and sweeping encampments disrupts homeless people’s access to social and health services, leading to worsened health and increased vulnerability.

In addition, by forcing people to move to other locations  the inevitable result when no indoor alternatives are available  may increase exposure to illness, not only for residents but also for the community at large. Perhaps in belated but still welcome recognition of this interconnection, some cities are halting enforcement of sweeps and criminalization practices. Several, including the District, have also issued moratoriums on evictions, helping to prevent homelessness. We call on all cities and all states to ensure the safety and well-being of their neighbors by following their lead. 

Forcing people experiencing homelessness into close, congregate facilities such as large scale shelters is a recipe for rapid spread of disease. The best public health approach communities could take would be to offer to temporarily house people experiencing homelessness in hotels or motels, at least for the duration of the crisis, as some have done. This would allow people experiencing homelessness full access to adequate sanitation and to effectively maintain social distancing.  

Alternatively, while encampments are not a long-term solution, preserving individuals’ ability to sleep in private tents instead of mass facilities through repealing  or at least pausing enforcement of  ordinances banning camping or sleeping in public would ensure people can more safely shelter in place, maintain social distancing, and reduce sleep deprivation. Encampments should be provided with preventative solutions  like mobile toilets, sanitation stations, and trash bins  to further reduce harm.  

We also call on the U.S. Congress to follow the lead of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Banking Committee Ranking Member Sherrod Brown to amend the emergency coronavirus relief now being considered to include emergency rental and eviction-prevention assistance, as well as financial assistance directly to homelessness service providers, housing authorities, and housing-assistance providers. Congress should also put into effect a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions. At a minimum, the eviction moratorium should apply to federally subsidized housing, including public housing and HUD housing, during the crisis.  

Treating people with respect and human dignity is the first step in a health crisis  everyone is deserving of health and housing. Both are basic human rights. The current public health crisis demonstrates that we are all linked together, and our collective health is only as strong as its vulnerable parts. This should spur us not only to immediate action but long term, preventative reforms. It is in the public’s best interest to address the housing needs of this country, as housing is health. Housing provides stability for a functioning immune system, the infrastructure for handwashing and sanitation, and the safety for rest, sleep, proper nutrition, and social distancing. Housing is the next step to mitigating coronavirus. 

Maria Foscarinis is the founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. 

Issues |Encampments|Housing|Shelters

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