Why Did it Take COVID-19 to Make Us Have Compassion for Homeless People?

homeless man putting on a mask

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit in the U.S., our perspective became at once broader and smaller. While we worried how the virus would impact millions around the world, our own personal worlds shrank to the confines of our homes. Suddenly, being home was the most responsible, socially-conscious thing we could do. We saw and heard messages about staying home repeated on TV commercials, radio ads, newspapers, and practically everywhere else we get information.

Then, a collective thought seemed to occur to us: what if you don’t have a home?

That paradox stunned us, as it seemed the entire world had gone into quarantine. The idea that there were people out there, not at home because they could not be, was at odds with what we were being told.

So we reacted with a number of half-baked solutions to get homeless people into temporary housing. They included converting motels into homeless shelters, putting homeless people into RVs and motorhomes, and creating additional shelters. While perhaps unrealistic to expect officials to react with perfect solutions to a complex, systemic problem, solutions ran far short of the need.

And it’s no wonder. Government officials scrambled in the heat of the moment to find housing for the unhoused, facing enormous pressure from public health officials. They pulled it off, though. All it took was a global pandemic to pressure governments to do something about the homeless people slowly dying on their streets.

It begs the question: why did it take a pandemic?

True, COVID-19 is a deadly, brand new threat that has compelled us all to make changes we would never otherwise have done. We never could have predicted a year ago, for example, that so many of our workforce would be working from home. Apparently, new problems compel out-of-the-box thinking and creative problem solving like nothing else.

Really, though, this reaction was all about the housed, not homeless people. If we really consider the realities of homelessness, we would realize the threat of deadly disease is nothing new to homeless people at all. They risk a plethora of diseases we consider all but extinct in modern society. These diseases include:

  • Tuberculosis
  • Typhus
  • Diphtheria
  • Viral Hepatitis
  • Shigellosis

It could be fair to say COVID-19 is just another threat in an endless string of threats posed to homeless people’s lives. For them, it’s just another danger. This ought to speak volumes to us about what it’s like to be homeless.

Our sudden outpouring of action has nothing to do with the grave new threat of COVID-19 to homeless people. It speaks only to our limited ability to empathize. When our lives are threatened, we suddenly find empathy that was missing before.

Why Is It so Hard for Us to Find Empathy for Homeless People?

We hear all the time that the U.S. is the richest country in the world. If we wanted to, we could have solved homelessness a long time ago. It would require sacrifice on the part of the wealthy — their willingness to be less wealthy for the sake of the poor. That’s an extremely rare thing. It becomes even rarer when political leaders enable this kind of wealth-hoarding.

The fact is, we’re accustomed to the existence of poverty. We don’t want to see it, but we grow up believing that because the destitute have always existed throughout history, they will continue to do so. That’s just the natural order of things.

Even when we see homelessness in the form of panhandlers on off ramps, it’s easy to not truly see homelessness. Because we’ve accepted it as a normal part of society, we’ve become desensitized to it. We don’t see it as something shocking and unacceptable. Therefore, we don’t see it as fixable. So we don’t even think about solutions. Meanwhile, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

What Can I Do as an Individual?

If we only looked outside the box and woke up from our apathy, we’d find there are many ways we can help end homelessness.

First, start being sensitive. Realize that homelessness has no place in the richest country in the world. There are many nations with less money and far fewer homeless people. The perfect solution probably doesn’t exist. But by studying the routes other countries have taken to dramatically decrease their homeless population, we can get a better sense of how pitifully inadequate our response has been.

Do some research and see what kinds of methods other countries have used to get their homeless populations down. Some areas in the U.S. have done it, too, and their solutions are scalable.

Second, stop allowing politicians to fool you into thinking providing ways out of homelessness means halving your paycheck. We are the richest nation in the world, with the highest wealth gap in the world. The top one percent of households in the U.S. have 15 times more wealth than the lower 50 percent combined. We need policies to fix wealth inequality.

Too many politicians benefit directly from wealth inequality, so they spread lies about what these policies will look like. This solution is simple: vote them out.

Finally, remind others of how unacceptable homelessness is. Remember it’s not necessarily insensitivity that causes desensitization. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in our lives that we become complacent. Once you’ve done some research on effective policies to reduce homelessness, talk to other people about what you’ve learned. For those who do lack sensitivity, talk to them in terms that will resonate with them. Tell them ending homelessness saves the government money overall, rather than costing it.

One easy thing you can do is keep following Invisible People, sharing our articles, and disseminating the truth about injustice as wide as you can. Don’t let the conversation about how to help homeless people in the midst of COVID-19 end.

If breaking people out of their apathy is the most important step, awareness and education is the most effective tool we have.

Victoria VanTol

Victoria VanTol


Victoria VanTol holds a master's degree in social work. She is a therapist and freelance writer specializing in topics related to social justice and mental health.

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