First Ever COVID Winter Threatens to Leave Millions Homeless

COVID Winter

We all know that first bite of winter. For many Americans, it incites a chill of excitement. We look forward to snuggly sweaters, warm, minty drinks, the soft smell of pine cones, and that first snowfall when it lands atop our vehicles and rooftops and makes the mundane feel magical.

Yes, winter wrapped up in a blanket is fun. Watching children gleefully toss snow is a blast. With heat, electricity, and a myriad of modern amenities available, even the tiny annoyances (like ice on our windshields) melt away in a matter of minutes.

There’s been much talk recently about what privilege looks like. I say it is a warm cup of coffee in a heated café with unlimited Wi-Fi and dry socks staring off into the distance as an unhoused member of society is shamed for attempting to use the bathroom without making a purchase.

Privilege, like snow, falls silently; but it still alters the world around us in a million little ways.

As the first ever COVID winter looms however, privilege could be very different … because even you – the person reading this post from the comfort of your own home – might not have it.

The Forecast for January of 2021 Shows Record-Breaking Eviction Numbers on the Horizon

A new study produced by STOUT suggests that when the latest moratorium runs out (January 1, 2021), at least 20 million individual renters could be facing eviction.

Without emergency rental assistance to fill in the blanks caused by mass unemployment, we are looking at tens of millions of American workers and their children possibly being left out in the cold … literally. If these individuals cannot find an adequate place to seek refuge, we could see a rise, not just in homelessness, but particularly in unsheltered homelessness, which is defined as having no safe place to sleep at night.

Currently, unsheltered homelessness, or street homelessness, only accounts for about 35% of the total homeless population. Now, with COVID-19 playing a major role in an already strained economy, there are even fewer indoor spaces available.

“In Missouri, this is the time of year when we really start to talk about the fact that we don’t have enough resources to address the needs of people with low incomes experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness during the fall and winter,” explained Sarah Owsley of Empower Missouri.

In her state and many other regions nationwide, it has already begun to get cold. Sarah reports experiencing 3-4x more requests for support this year. During a brief Webinar hosted by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Sarah described the desolate state of her neighbors as not only homeless, but also hungry and cold.

“Missouri is hurting without significant investment in assistance here,” she proclaimed.

In the Midst of the Global Pandemic, More Help is Needed but Fewer Resources Are Available.

It’s easy to talk about the number of people who might be facing eviction and/or homelessness in January because for now they’re still safe in their homes. Their need for shelter remains a hypothetical scenario taking place sometime in the future. Or perhaps, from an optimistic standpoint, not at all.

It’s important to point out that we had a homeless crisis prior to the pandemic. Now, at our most dire hour, fewer resources are available than ever before. Those resources were reserved for the astronomical number of people who were already homeless prior to the pandemic and who, in most cases, are still desperately in need.

Here are just a few of the unique obstacles posed by winter in the COVID-era from an advocacy standpoint:

  • Unemployment numbers have reached critical levels
  • In many places, federal funding is running out
  • 14 million people previously protected by the CARES Act have since relapsed into extreme poverty
  • Houses of worship that usually provide shelter are still closed or operating at limited capacity
  • Many warming shelters cannot afford to open
  • Stimulus negotiations continue to vacillate
  • Social distancing measures have cut capacity by more than half in shelters all across the nation
  • There is still no rental assistance
  • Many politicians (including our very president) are personally undergoing treatment for COVID-19, which slows down the legislative process considerably
  • As a result, legislation is not keeping pace with mass poverty, housing instability, and unemployment

A Snowball Effect Could Increase COVID Cases

Is it any wonder the media keeps predicting an avalanche?

Of course, when they state this, they’re referring to evictions. But surely, we’re all bracing for a coming snow-laden slope of sorts. This is particularly true for our unsheltered neighbors.

This year, when they attempt to warm up in public spaces, they will find many of these places are closed. The libraries, masjids, soup kitchens, and cafes, the movie theaters, fitness centers, malls, bowling alleys, and restaurants … they are all closed or operating at limited capacity.

Come January, the door to your own home could be locked and boarded, closed in the name of the Coronavirus.

Don’t mistakenly believe that homelessness is a gradual process. For many people, it happens overnight.

Without safe and adequate shelter, people enduring homelessness in winter are often subject to cold-related illnesses like hypothermia and frostbite. In the United States alone, approximately 700 homeless people die from hypothermia each year. Many more are forced to undergo amputation. The cold itself takes a terrible toll on one’s immune system making people who are exposed to the elements more susceptible to catching, and henceforth passing on, the novel Coronavirus.

Other components adding to the snowball effect include:

  • Flu season
  • The potential coming loss of healthcare for people with pre-existing conditions
  • The potential for a long-term need of social distancing

There’s No End in Sight

COVID-19 entered our lives appearing as a temporary condition, something that would only last a couple of weeks. Now, more than a half a year of distancing under our belts, it’s uncertain when, or rather if, the situation will change.

In Boston, for instance, service workers vow never to return to the crowded shelter conditions of the past. But what that means from a number standpoint is that shelters that once housed the majority of Boston’s local homeless population will now be about 800 beds short. And that number holds true only if nobody in Boston gets evicted this January.

Still, There is Hope that We’ll Come Out of the Cold

Even with the odds stacked up against us like a pile of snow churning itself into an avalanche, there is still a simple, cost-effective solution to homelessness. That solution is housing.

In the places where we don’t have it, we must build it.

Where it is vacant, we must fill it.

Where it is unaffordable, we must lower the price.

Everybody who has ever run the numbers has come to this conclusion. It is cheaper to house homeless people than it is to arrest them, to shelter them, to hospitalize them, and now, to become them.

This winter, be sure to remind your representatives that housing is a right-not a privilege.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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