Louisiana reported its first case of COVID-19 on Monday, March 9, and by the following Saturday, five days later, the number of confirmed cases had risen to 77. In New Orleans, where two thirds of the state’s confirmed cases lived, Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued a statement announcing the city’s first coronavirus death, and acknowledging that “particular sectors of our community” were at a heightened risk of severe symptoms and death. Reported data is starting to reveal that African-American communities are among the populations most vulnerable to infection and death from COVID-19. And as the outbreak progresses, it’s sure to highlight a range of inequalities in American society. But for advocates for the homeless in New Orleans and around the country, it was clear from the beginning that unhoused people were in particular danger.
The coronavirus outbreak in New Orleans has played out amid a citywide sense of post-traumatic stress from Hurricane Katrina, says Martha Kegel, the executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a coalition of nonprofit groups that work with people experiencing homelessness in Jefferson and Orleans parishes. As the number of cases shot up, and outreach organizations adjusted to new social distancing guidelines, advocates knew from experience that their clients were “going to suffer the most,” Kegel says. The city quickly began providing handwashing stations near homeless encampments, Kegel says. But in order to slow the spread of the outbreak and protect the most immuno-compromised people, advocates knew that the most important solution was the most obvious one: individual housing.
“It just became very crystal clear to me that we had to move people into hotels, and we had to do it really fast,” Kegel says.
The Centers for Disease Control has issued guidance saying that cities should not clear encampments unless individual housing is available. And in the past few weeks, a number of cities have begun securing hotel space for people experiencing homelessness. New Orleans began moving some people from encampments into hotel rooms in the Central Business District toward the end of March. The pandemic has emptied hotels and made more federal emergency money available to cities, but advocates say cities are suddenly pursuing solutions that are possible, and necessary, even after emergency declarations are lifted.
“We’re suddenly moving people off the street en masse, even though in normal times we’re all well aware that people die from homelessness,” Kegel says. “We all know that this is what we needed to be doing all along. It just took this [pandemic] to actually develop the will.”
Amid the pandemic, more people seem to be waking up to the health risks that unhoused people face all the time, says Jonathan Juckett, a senior program manager for the Outreach Coordination Center at Project HOME in Philadelphia. And the outbreak is also revealing the shortcomings of large congregate shelters — the typical emergency shelters that homeless people are encouraged to use for overnight stays, especially during cold months. Those facilities lack privacy during normal operations, advocates say, and struggle to maintain social distancing during crises.
Philadelphia has been providing hotel rooms in a downtown Holiday Inn for homeless people who have tested positive for COVID-19. In San Francisco, a group of members of the Board of Supervisors introduced emergency legislation to force the city to acquire and provide more hotel rooms after a number of shelter residents had tested positive for the virus. The Supervisors held a meeting on Zoom after Street Sheet, a newspaper published by the Coalition for the Homeless, ran a photograph showing emergency beds in a giant warehouse with individual spaces marked off with tape, reminiscent of an image of socially distanced spaces in a Las Vegas parking lot that drew widespread criticism.
Michael Trujillo, a staff attorney who works with people experiencing homelessness at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, says the city of San Jose and Santa Clara County have responded to the crisis by providing temporary shelter in hotels as well as tiny homes and mobile homes. The county is pursuing emergency shelter options in a vacant lot in Milpitas, for example.
“It makes clear that government at all levels has a lot more capacity to rapidly house people who have serious health risks,” Trujillo says.
And it shows that in a state like California and a city like San Jose, where the shortage of affordable housing was already at crisis levels, temporary individual housing has potential as an interim solution for people experiencing homelessness, Trujillo says. Even without a pandemic, the city and state will need more permanent and supportive housing for homeless people, as well as affordable housing for people of all incomes.
“It’s going to take a long time to build that housing, and folks shouldn’t be hassled and swept around the city as that gets built,” Trujillo says.
In Washington, D.C., the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless has often found itself at odds with local officials over individual cases involving homeless people and broader policy objectives, says staff attorney Amber Harding. Since the pandemic began, the city’s Department of Human Services has been more transparent and collaborative with the Clinic, she says. That’s been helpful in getting support and temporary housing for people experiencing homelessness, but also somewhat of an adjustment for a group that’s accustomed to having an adversarial relationship with the city, she says.
The Clinic published a blog post outlining the steps the city has taken so far to address health vulnerabilities in homeless communities, from providing handwashing stations to providing hotel rooms for some individuals. It also includes recommendations for the city to provide portable bathrooms near encampments, and allow families to self-certify their eligibility for emergency shelter. Harding says she’s spent a lot of time over the last year trying to get the city to provide individual housing for people in shelters with critical health problems, only to be told it wasn’t possible. Now, the District has reportedly begun using hotel rooms to house people who have been infected or exposed to the virus. Harding, like other advocates, says the pandemic has activated a sense of urgency to protect the health of unhoused people that cities should maintain even after the pandemic ends.
“I hope this is an opportunity to say that if this is unjust now, it was unjust before, and it will be unjust in the future,” Harding says.
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our twice-weekly Backyard newsletter.
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.