Honestly, my life probably looks a lot like yours, assuming you’re housed and have just spent the last year navigating COVID. If you’re in a big metropolitan city, like Los Angeles or New York City, social distancing could very much have been a matter of life or death for many months.
Before I had any real idea what was happening, the virus was in my backyard in south Brooklyn. I stopped commuting to work and didn’t leave my house for quite some time. There was a lot of Instacart grocery delivery from Target and Aldi. Then it was a lot of Amazon Fresh, Prime Now, and Amazon anything, in general.
Up until that point, I had never been so glad to be housed.
I couldn’t imagine what this might have been like from a crowded homeless shelter, or worse, from the streets. As thankful as I was, I was terrified for my homeless friends. I was also terrified for myself – that homelessness would happen all over again.
The risk was real. It was here, and it was heading toward me fast. I thought I could get laid off at any moment, let go from my once assumed cushy, safe union job. Before I knew it, budgets cuts were made swiftly, I might add. I saw coworkers with the same title let go. I lived in a state of constant stress and panic for several months, wondering when my time would be up. When would the rug be yanked from under my feet? And I continue to live with that kind of uncertainty and instability.
My therapist calls it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but I still call it that thing, that feeling that never goes away.
Living through COVID made it come back, full throttle, full swing. And there I was, signing for my nightly bed again, standing on the edge of the Harlem Meer. It felt so close, and all of this, the here and now, so far away. I couldn’t tell which side of the veil I was on, and the shade was suffocating. I felt like an imposter in my own life, like a fake, like a pretender. At any moment’s notice, I would get yanked back into that homeless shelter.
While I was so scared for myself, I was also terrified for everyone else – my parents, my loved ones, my friends. I was afraid someone I loved dearly would contract COVID, and the worst scenario would come to fruition. I was not only afraid of becoming homeless again but of also getting sick myself and dying.
These were valid concerns, all of them. Imagining what this must feel like for those who are currently street homeless, in crowded homeless shelters, or at risk of becoming homeless due to job loss, or worse, a death in the family, is heartbreaking.
These are truly difficult times. It is so much harder for those who lack housing security.
There is no doubt that COVID has shaken things up quite a bit for all social services, including much of what’s happening within the homeless sector. I’ve noticed homeless friends out in Los Angeles quickly sheltered through Project Roomkey, a federally funded homeless relief program in the state of California. This has provided many homeless people with a roof for an extended period and casework for permanent housing. On the other hand, many homeless people are being shuffled back into crowded shelters here in New York City right now, amid another surge of COVID cases.
As all of this is happening, many working-class people truly felt the instability that COVID brought. It didn’t only bring severe health risks, but also a risk in our jobs and keeping our homes. For a long period, the threat of poverty and homelessness looked very real. And it was, for many.
In the midst of all of this, the pressure to “return to normal” remains. However, many are realizing “normal” was never very good to begin with.
We lived, and still live, in a “normal” that allows homelessness, that allows income inequality, unlivable wages, and soaring rents. Unaffordable housing has plummeted hundreds of thousands of people into poverty and homelessness. No one deserves that; no one deserves any of it.
COVID has challenged us to really consider how we should be living. Frankly, I don’t want things to go back to normal. Normal wasn’t working. I certainly don’t want my sheltered friends to become homeless again, either.
As for me, I’m mostly still that same quiet, under the radar, quickly disappearing into the shadows, silent ally. But, you know what, there are many different front lines. I consider this a tiny little piece of that.
I hope these words resonate with you, or at the very least, encourage you to reflect on the last year of our lives and what it brought us. There were many bad things. But there has also been some fire, some clarity, and some hope – fuel for making this world a better place, a livable place, for all of us.