Our Continued Fight Against Extreme Poverty and Homelessnesss in the Midst of Coronavirus

social distancing guidelines

Understanding Intersectionality Between Disease Outbreak and Inequality

Christian Cascone chooses to spend most of his days in a storage space he rents instead of at a Bronx shelter. Why? Because, as he said, It’s a ticking time bomb. And, frankly, I would stay in that storage space, too.

Between 2016 and 2017, I jumped from one crowded homeless shelter to the next in Manhattan and the Bronx. If I were in these shelters now, and remembering how often and how easily I got sick, I don’t think I would have survived COVID-19. Especially not with an already compromised immune system, depression and the daily stress of being homeless and trying to cope with shelter life.

This is also the case for shelter staff. They share similar experiences with other essential employees who are not being protected while performing very risky, but necessarily work. According to the article, “’We’re on Our Own’: Working in a Homeless Shelter Is a Nightmare Right Now”, we are learning that employees of a Brooklyn homeless shelter aren’t allowed to take days off. They aren’t even given protective equipment while working in spaces where the coronavirus is likely to spread.

What does this say about our priorities when we’re neglecting to protect our most vulnerable populations, as well as those who protect them?

Right now, homeless people everywhere are the ideal target for the rapidly-spreading coronavirus. They sit in the perfect conditions for COVID-19. There’s no doubt this virus will not only devastate the homeless community, but will also grow the number of cases.

As we all know, social distancing helps combat the spread of COVID-19 across the globe. However, those sleeping rough and residing in crowded shelters are being left behind and, quite frankly, left to die.

The truth of the matter is this has always been the case. In fact, the burden of disease shines a light upon inequality. The poorer you are, the higher price you pay when it comes to a crisis like this. With the economy collapsing in the distance, our system shakes under the weight of its inability to provide and support its people. Social services are stretched thin. And, with the lack of housing, shelters are packing in as many people as they possibly can.

The result: We have the most vulnerable demographic with weakened immune systems sitting in overcrowded and oftentimes unsanitary conditions, making themselves the absolute perfect target for a persistent and dangerous virus to spread.

From the journal article “COVID-19: a potential public health problem for homeless populations”, we learn that:

“People experiencing homelessness live in environments that are conducive to a disease epidemic. Many people experiencing homelessness live in congregate living settings – be it formal (i.e. shelters or halfway houses) or informal (i.e., encampments or abandoned buildings)—and might not have regular access to basic hygiene supplies or showering facilities, all of which could facilitate virus transmission. People experiencing homelessness are a vulnerable group, and their potential exposure to COVID-19 might negatively affect their ability to be housed, and their mental and physical health. People experiencing homelessness aged younger than 65 years have all-cause mortality that is 5–10 times higher than that of the general population. COVID-19 infection might further increase this mortality disparity.”

There is no doubt that this current pandemic we face will impact our fight to end extreme poverty and homelessness.

As mentioned in the journal article above, poor people, especially homeless people, are more at risk of the disease than anyone else. What we know from many diseases is that poverty increases your risk of exposure. Furthermore, preventative care and health education are less accessible to low-income people who are more likely to have pre-existing conditions, catch COVID-19, and then die from it. People living in poverty are also more likely to hold insecure jobs and cannot afford to stay home sick from work.

The response to COVID-19 is not poverty sensitive.

You can’t ask a homeless person to socially distance themselves from other people. You can’t ask a homeless person to stay home, to wash their hands, or to wear a mask. To not respond with adjustments to these limitations is no response at all. Surely, homeless people are also not being tested. Poor and homeless people have unequal access to health care. And, with a shortage of tests, this makes this obstacle even larger.

As a formerly homeless person, I understand what it feels like to be out of sight and out of mind. I understand what it feels like to be invisible. I ask you to imagine what it might feel like to have everything that is happening in the world right now, that is happening to you – all of the stress, and worry, the uncertainty, and also not have a roof over your head, to not have the same ability to protect yourself. Would you survive?

In all this, I still want to shine some light into the darkness. Each day I learn of numerous homeless friends who are finally being sheltered! Yes, the pressure behind their recent roof has everything to do with COVID-19. But perhaps this tells us that things can happen if we will it so. If we finally decide we must make a change, we will make a change. We can make things happen. Can we uphold this support once it’s safe to go outside again? That’s the next question, I guess.

As for me, I’m hopeful. I see people around me living a little differently. I’m seeing creativity, community, compassion and resilience. People are turning inward and toward each other. Let’s extend that to our homeless friends, too.

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Jocelyn Figueroa


Jocelyn Figueroa studied Creative Non-Fiction at The New School and is a blogger and freelance writer based out of New York City. Formerly homeless, she launched her own blog discussing shelter life in New York City. Today, Jocelyn is on a mission to build connections through storytelling and creative writing. Check out her book about homelessness at https://ko-fi.com/scartissueproject

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