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Homelessness During the Pandemic: What to Do and How to Help

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Here’s a distressing statistic: Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, on any given night in America, more than half a million people were homeless. Since the coronavirus outbreak, those without homes face the most severe consequences, including high infection rates, and increased risk of severe complications or death.

For those who are homeless and need a place to live, there are options. Here’s a look at homeless resources, homelessness during the pandemic, and how those willing to help can get involved.

In this article

Who’s at risk, and why?

Homelessness affects people across regions, of varying economic statuses, genders, and racial and ethnic groups. But there are some key factors across the board that increase the likelihood of homelessness.

“There’s a real range of circumstances that people are in when they’re homeless,” says Steve Berg, VP of Programs and Policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.  “Sometimes it’s just a series of bad breaks — people who are used to working and lost jobs or had an illness in their family or a natural disaster hit, and now they’re homeless through great surprise, and they’re trying to work their way out of it.”

homelessnes resources infographic

Want to take this information with you? You can download and print out homelessness resources here

Research shows that the two main factors that contribute to homelessness are lack of income and lack of affordable housing. According to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2018, over 38 million people lived in poverty.

“I think people would be surprised to know just how little income most homeless people have,” Berg says. “And that many homeless people work.”

Racial inequity also plays a role in homelessness. Most minority groups experience homelessness at higher rates than white people, making up a disproportionate share of the homeless population. Black people, for example, account for over 40% of the homeless population but represent just 13% of the general population. Both white Americans and Asian-Americans, in contrast, are significantly underrepresented among the homeless.

Age is another factor. Those 50 to 64 years old are at risk because Social Security and other federal benefits aren’t fully available until age 65. Those aged 50 to 59 are up to two times disproportionately represented among the homeless.

Other major factors that can contribute to homelessness include the lack of affordable health care, domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental illness.

Increased vulnerability during the coronavirus pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated many of the already-trying conditions of homelessness in our country. In one sense, almost everyone is at risk, says Berg.

“If something bad enough happens — hurricanes, fire — you’re going to end up homeless,” he says. “Due to the big economic downturn caused by the coronavirus, they’re losing their jobs, though they had solid housing.”

Higher health risk

The elderly, and those with underlying health conditions, such as auto-immune diseases, are at a higher health risk than healthy adults. But those who are unable to distance physically — like those in senior care centers, and those living in unhealthy conditions — are extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 exposure. Those without homes face high infection rates and an increased risk of severe complications or death.

Unemployment

Due to the continuing shutdown of many organizations and companies, the U.S. unemployment rate shot up from 3.8% in February to 13% in May. That rate was the era’s second-highest, trailing only the level reached in April (14.4%). Looking ahead, unemployment will likely remain high, especially for people of color, those with disabilities, and those with low incomes, including many who will have difficulty finding a job during the economic downturn.

And, according to Berg, once you’re homeless, it’s hard to get back on your feet for a number of reasons. Without an address, he says, “It’s hard to get your mail or apply for a job, and it’s harder to keep yourself presentable.”

Evictions

Many people can’t finally support their living situations. What’s more, since the COVID-19 pandemic began in earnest, a federal moratorium has covered renters who live in homes with federally backed mortgages, which the Urban Institute estimates to be about 30% of all US renters.

That moratorium lapsed in July, giving landlords the right to give delinquent tenants 30 days’ notice and then begin filing eviction paperwork. Find out if you’re protected here.

Youth

The causes of youth homelessness fall into three categories: family problems, economic hardship, and housing instability. Now, especially given school closures and the movement to bring education online during the COVID-19 pandemic, many students do not have access to daily benefits of in-school education, including meals. They also miss out on the chance to escape potentially inadequate or dangerous living situations while at school.

Young people fleeing family violence are also at a higher risk of homelessness. Over 70% of homeless youth reported experiencing major trauma, like physical or sexual abuse, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, and 75% of homeless or runaway youth have dropped out or will drop out of school. Stay-at-home orders may force survivors to either go into lockdown with their abuser or attempt to leave the situation and become homeless during the pandemic.

Insufficient resources

It’s not surprising that, given the heightened need for help, especially during COVID-19, resources are limited and, in many cases, insufficient.

Homelessness programs, like Section 8 vouchers, meet just one-fourth of the country’s actual need, according to Berg.

“That’s in big contrast to Medicaid to or SNAP, in which everyone who’s eligible gets the help,” he says. “But for housing, you go on a waiting list and wait until someone else doesn’t need it.”

There is a lack of resources for testing individuals for COVID, and existing resources are costly. As a case example, take a look at Ohio. According to a recent report by Barbara Poppe, who served as the executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness under President Obama, there is currently a “critical lack of guidance, resources, and capacity” for Ohio’s homeless services to weather the coronavirus pandemic.

How can we help right now?

Nonprofits

The HUD Exchange provides a handy, clickable U.S. map to help you easily find active programs in your area.

Get involved or volunteer with these current organizations:

Other large nonprofits doing similar work include United Way, Goodwill, Salvation Army, and food banks.

Donations

Donations can come in a wide variety, from financial to physical resources. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, other needed items include:

Clothing:

Lacking clean, well-fitting clothes, and shoes only further hardships faced by the homeless, such as securing employment. Clean all clothes before you donate them.

In-kind services:

Marketing, copying, printing, food, transportation, computers, electrical work, building materials, plumbing, you name it — if it’s your specialty, consider donating your individual skills, time, and services.

Household goods:

Kitchen utensils, furniture, toys, games, stuffed animals, diapers, etc. are all useful for those just starting fresh.

Books:

People experiencing homelessness may have limited access to a library and find that there’s little for them to do when spending a night at a shelter. Consider organizing a book drive to create a small library at the shelter if there’s not already one there.

Computers:

Many nonprofit organizations have a difficult time purchasing essential technological equipment. If you have a machine you no longer need, a local shelter could appreciate the donation.

Homeless “survival kits:”

Organize and distribute kits that include cups, pots, pans, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and cosmetics. During cold weather, organize drives for blankets, coats, hats, scarves, mittens, socks, etc.

Other:

You can also donate to or organize a cellphone drive, encourage your company, school, or place of worship to hire those experiencing homelessness or consider raising money to contribute a security deposit or household goods, babysitting, or moral support.

Raising awareness

Action comes in many forms. Simply by raising awareness about homeless resources and sharing accurate, up-to-date information, you can help. If you want to take further action, you can petition the government, attend local meetings, and stay updated on the local level of transmission of COVID-19 through your local and state health departments.

Do you know a youth in danger of or already experiencing homelessness? Call the National Runaway Switchboard. The Switchboard is a toll-free, confidential hotline or visit the Switchboard’s website.

Salvation Army, the YWCA, and more offer funds to help offset moving expenses for those with low income. If you are in need of low-income moving assistance, there’s help out there.

What resources are available?

Many local resources are available to help family, friends, advocates, and those who are homeless get the information/help they need, you just need to know where to look.

State and local resources

In March, the Senate passed the CARES Act, the largest supplemental spending bill responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis. The bill includes $4 billion for homeless assistance and funds a broad range of activities for people who are homeless or who are at risk of homelessness.

The HUD Exchange offers a useful list of community contacts, searchable by state, for those who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

Transitional housing

Emergency shelters are typically an early line of defense for those experiencing an economic shock. This type of transitional housing typically involves a temporary residence of up to 24 months that then helps people move from a transitional shelter into stable housing and connects them to food assistance, public benefits, veterans’ assistance, child care assistance, Medicaid, and more. To get help for yourself or someone you know, search this state-by-state list of helpful agencies.

Emergency locations

The National Coalition for the Homeless provides a useful map of homeless shelters in the US. Explore temporary housing availability in your area, including those for women only, for families and children, and those that allow pets.

“There are outreach programs with trained professionals whose job it is to find homeless people and figure out if they’re in danger,” says Berg. “That’s where people can tie into the system locally. The system is not adequate, but they try to focus on who’s in the most real danger.”

Helping a loved one

Seeing a loved one in trouble or in need of help can be emotionally difficult. You want to help out, but oftentimes issues beyond your control are at play. If you have a family member who’s homeless, there are ways you can assist.

If you aren’t comfortable providing temporary shelter yourself, seek other resources. Use the National Coalition for the Homeless’s map of homeless shelters in the U.S. to help your loved one find temporary housing. Typically, they’ll have access to other services beyond your knowledge and expertise.

According to Berg, the best thing you can do is help your loved one is to help get him or her linked up with a coordinated entry, where your loved one will be placed with an agency that’s trained to assess the situation and help. If you don’t know where to begin, Berg says, call your local United Way or mayor’s office.

Veterans’ resources

Veterans who are homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness should contact the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans. If you are a veteran, or you know of a veteran, who doesn’t have access to a mobile device or the internet, you’re encouraged to visit the closest U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical center without calling in advance. If you are not at imminent risk of homelessness, you should contact the VA medical center before visiting for any reason.

VA facilities have created isolated zones for veterans with possible or confirmed COVID-19. All of their facilities have identified appropriate quarantine options for homeless veterans if they are symptomatic or screen positive for COVID-19 but are not ill enough for hospital-level care.

Unemployment resources

If you’ve lost your job, or you know someone who has, you’re not alone. Help is available. Learn how to apply for unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation, welfare, or temporary assistance.

“Coronavirus has made a lot of people aware of just how vulnerable some people are,” says Berg. “The message is just Stay home, and we’ll be safe, and for many, staying home is not an option. I think that’s raised a lot of people’s awareness and made elected officials more responsive.”


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