Blog Series: COVID-19 Response – Housing

COVID-19 blog series

Self-isolation. Social distancing. “Shelter-in-place.” Or in the
words of some (not-safe-for-work) Italian mayors who have gone viral – “I don’t want
excuses, you have to go home!”

Whatever term you use, reducing crowds in public places and
through private gatherings is an essential piece of the state and
national strategy to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and preserve essential
medical resources. But what happens when you don’t have a home to shelter in,
or when your regular shelter is itself crowded and doesn’t allow for isolation?

Nationally, roughly 568,000 people are homeless on a single night
in America (based on 2019) data, according to the Department
of Housing and Urban Development
, looking at those who are
“unsheltered,” in places not meant for habitation (cars, campsites), and within
homeless shelters. However, about 172,2000 people across 54,000 families
with children
fall under this umbrella. Families with children are more
likely to make alternate arrangements such as motels or living “doubled up”
with family or friends. This definition, which is used by the Department of
Education for its programming includes at
least 1.5 million students
, three-quarters of whom live “doubled up.”

Different populations experiencing homelessness have different
needs.[1] A
key concern among housing agencies is the continued spread of the virus should
an individual in the shelter system become sick; most shelters use dorm or
communal living situations, which makes true isolation impossible. As the Urban
Institute notes
, “communities should consider ways they could temporarily expand shelter
capacity to allow for isolation or form a plan with their public health agency
for isolation strategies once people are identified.” There has been
significant media coverage of California’s efforts to house homeless families
and individuals in hotels which are facing significant vacancies, though advocates report there is stalled movement on obtaining this necessary
level of privacy for self-isolation with success ranging by county.

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has a resource
to help schools and other providers consider the specific needs
of housing unstable families during this crisis, including the following
(additional considerations for each question are provided in the full

  • “Does a school
    system have methods in place to maintain communication with students
    experiencing homelessness?”
  • “How can families
    and unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness access needed supports – such
    as food, hygiene, medical care, temporary shelter, and housing options for
    quarantine or recovery should they become ill – including in communities where
    schools have closed in response to COVID-19?”
  • “How can
    communities work with and support local liaisons, school counselors, school
    social workers, and other relevant district or school personnel in conducting
    outreach to students experiencing homelessness in order to check in on their
    safety and well-being?”
  • “How can schools
    and communities work together to ensure access to virtual or distance learning
    opportunities for students experiencing homelessness when schools close?”

The New York Times shared a vivid portrait of one New Jersey
family whose doubled up arrangement was quickly upended, leading the family to
sharing one room in a motel during quarantine. The family is eligible to
continue receiving free meals from their school, but cannot obtain
transportation to do so, and so make use of the small in-room kitchenette.
Another Times piece highlighted that family shelters in New York
City often do not have available wireless internet – so despite the fact that
devices have been made available for students to continue virtual learning,
children in shelter cannot “log on” with their peers. These challenges add to
the stress families are experiencing as they try to stay safe and healthy, and
will deepen the “learning gap” that divides families by income.        

There is also a need to ensure that more families do not become
homeless as a result of this crisis and the ensuing economic impact. The Urban
Institute highlights
eviction moratoria – passed by a growing
number of state and local governments, as well as extended to certain federally
funded housing – as a key policy lever which can make sure vulnerable families
do not lose housing, risking their health and well-being. They also identify
opportunities to utilize surplus government property as shelters (allowing more
individuals to move off the street, or to reduce the concentration of people).

The issue of homelessness and housing instability has always
required collaboration across multiple sectors – housing, health, education,
human services, and non-profit organizations – and that need has never been
greater than with the urgency brought by the pandemic.

This post focuses on the situation for families particularly with young
children. The US Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) maintains a COVID-19
specific database
on resources and examples from communities across the
country related to individuals, families, and unaccompanied youth.
Increased outreach for those experience “street homelessness” is essential, as
are safety procedures for both staff members and the population with whom they
work. For those interested in learning more about the situation for
individuals, who may be chronically homeless or facing co-existing health
issues, we suggest recent media coverage from The Texas
and Vox

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