As COVID-19 started to spread across the globe, activists were warning that the virus would devastate homeless populations around the world. Now, with the pandemic at its peak in many countries, the numbers have proven activists right.
The crisis poses a terrifying situation for homeless people who lack safe and stable shelter, access to proper sanitation, and basic food supplies. Plus, homeless people are especially vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic. This is because they’re more likely to experience a chronic health condition that could put themselves at further risk should they become infected with COVID-19.
Whether living in shelters, in tent camps, or on the streets, in most countries it seems impossible for homeless people to practice social distancing as directed by governments.
But as the virus spreads, there have been different approaches from countries in managing the safety of homeless people during the pandemic.
According to government figures, there are 4,266 rough sleepers in England. However, this is the number of people who are counted sleeping rough on a single night in November each year.
Over a year the number of rough sleepers will be much higher as people move on and off the street. In London, 8,855 rough sleepers were seen by outreach workers between 2018-2019.
In March, the government announced the plan to see all rough sleepers in England housed within a weekend, with the announcement that they’ll do all they can to “get everyone in”.
Since the announcement, in London, 1,000 rough sleepers have moved to hotels. This is a result of the £10.55m joint initiative by London mayor Sadiq Khan, MHCLG, and homelessness charities. The government has since claimed that safe accommodation has been made for approximately 90% of rough sleepers across England, including in the capital.
While this is quick and effective work by local authorities, with the virus spreading in the capital there’s no time for a pat on the back yet. It’s estimated that there are still about 900 rough sleepers living on the streets or in shared facilities where coronavirus may circulate.
England is currently leading the way when it comes to housing homeless people during the pandemic, with hopes that the crisis will keep rough sleepers off the streets for good. Charities have announced that there’s “no going back”, with the idea that rough sleepers will be offered permanent housing following the pandemic.
The two main challenges are now addressing new rough sleepers moving to the streets and supporting individuals who have high levels of needs, such as those with drug problems. For the latter it isn’t sustainable for them to self-isolate in hotel rooms, so they must move somewhere where they can be supported.
In France, the approach has been a little different. In March, French police fined rough sleepers for breaching the country’s government orders to remain indoors during the coronavirus crisis. Those caught in public defying the lockdown laws risk paying fines of up to €135.
Of course, rough sleepers find themselves trapped within a catch-22 situation. They have nowhere safe to stay indoors. However, they are unable to remain out in public without being fined for money they don’t have. Rough sleepers were fined in cities including Paris, Lyon and Bayonne, according to charities.
Shortly after the lockdown announcement, the French government announced a €50 million financial package to set up shelters for rough sleepers during the lockdown period.
Yet despite this, homeless people in Paris, in particular, have found themselves relying on local charities for food, clothing and daily necessities.
In addition, self-isolation centers opened for homeless people experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 who can’t isolate in housing centers and whose health isn’t bad enough to go to the hospital. Yet this won’t help uninfected rough sleepers who have nowhere else to go and risk hefty fines for remaining out in public.
Another problem in Paris is that a lot of the shelters that are open for rough sleepers are dormitory-style shelters. This results in people sleeping side-by-side, able to infect each other.
Across the United States, COVID-19 has spread fast, with the country experiencing the highest number of cases and deaths in the world. As of April 30, there has been a total of 62,261 deaths.
The approach to looking after vulnerable homeless people has differed by states across the country.
In the state of California, authorities have struggled to contain the virus with more than 30 homeless people testing positive for COVID-19 in Los Angeles. While this includes six at a skid row shelter, most cases spread across people living on the streets.
Whereby in San Francisco, a coronavirus outbreak in a shelter resulted in more than 100 positive cases, 10 of them being staff members.
Californian Governor Gavin Newson recently announced plans to move thousands of homeless people into government-paid hotel rooms. Yet the good news comes with a sting – only a fraction of people living in shelters and on the street will have the chance to move. And in San Francisco, around only 750 people are living in hotels right now, which is eight percent of San Francisco’s homeless population.
Recently, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that the city will start sending medical teams to the city streets to test homeless people for the virus. And within the next few weeks, fast-result COVID-19 tests will be used, and those infected will be moved to shelters and hotel rooms to quarantine.
One of the most shocking images to arise from the homelessness crisis and the coronavirus pandemic is the one taken in Las Vegas. This is of dozens of people lying down on the hard ground of a parking lot. The homeless people in the image are confined to a sleeping space within white taped squares.
Empty hotels can be seen looming in the distance, and it’s claimed that there are more than 147,000 hotel rooms in the city, many of which remained empty as homeless people slept outside on the gravel. A city spokesperson claimed that hotel rooms were not an option right now.
While Las Vegas has since erected a tent complex in the same lot, the situation is similar to those sleeping rough in France. Sadly, the doors aren’t open to everyone. Only those that test positive for COVID-19 or display symptoms for it are lucky enough to claim a bed. It’s been reported that as of April 16, only eight of the 500 beds are taken.
Since the coronavirus lockdown began in India on March 25, most of the estimated four million-plus rough sleepers in the country have no way of making money. As the streets are empty, even begging during the pandemic isn’t an option.
Some major cities such as Delhi and Chennai have homeless shelters open. In areas like Mumbai, many people are stranded on the streets with nowhere to go. Now, some states are rushing to move homeless people to open spaces such as tents in parks, or in empty schools.
Yet like elsewhere in the world, the homeless shelters in India have serious issues due to a lack of acceptable space and sanitation. With government-run homeless shelters brimming and overpacked with people, social distancing is impossible for vulnerable rough sleepers. And if one person becomes infected with COVID-19, it will be extremely hard to control the spread within the shelter.
The problem is a catch-22 situation. If rough sleepers in shelters separate, then many will go back to the streets, wandering aimlessly without aid.
Likewise, in a densely packed urban neighborhood in Delhi, hundreds of rough sleepers queue up close together as they’re offered meals of rice and peas from a vat in the back of a van.
Long Term Solutions Are Required to Combat Homelessness
Some countries, like England, claim that the coronavirus pandemic is a chance to keep rough sleepers off the streets permanently. In other countries, the initiatives sadly won’t do much to address the long-term issues of homelessness.
The expansion of shelters and alternative housing has been a positive response from some countries around the world to protect homeless people during these unprecedented times.
However, how long will this support last? It also raises the question:
Why has it taken a global pandemic for countries to search for solutions for their homelessness crisis?