Homeless persons face the worst of the coronavirus pandemic

Las Vegas’ landmark welcome sign. The city was criticized last week for doing little to help its homeless population. Photo by pixabay.com

Many state and local governments are recognizing that if COVID-19 spreads among the homeless population, it would be a public health disaster. Cities nationwide are making efforts to help the homeless, but there’s a lot of uncertainty when looking into the future.

Shelters do not have the space for safe social distancing. Unsheltered people have few options for regular hand washing, especially with libraries, gyms and restaurants closed. With businesses closed and no one on the street, they cannot even panhandle to get money for food. A large share of homeless persons also have underlying health conditions that put their lives at greater risk if they are exposed to the coronavirus.

After almost a decade of decline, homelessness has increased in each of the last three years. Although more than half the states saw declines in homelessness last year, it has grown the most in the coastal cities with booming economies. This is especially true on the west coast. California has seen the largest growth in homelessness, and has the largest number of unsheltered homeless persons in the country. The large coastal cities are also where the coronavirus pandemic has hit earliest and hardest.

Many shelters are closing around the country. Tight living quarters make it impossible to practice social distancing. Bathroom and washing areas are shared. When clients show COVID-19 symptoms, it puts pressure on shelters to close so that others stay safe. Shelters also rely heavily on volunteer staff. It can be hard to keep volunteers working during stay home orders. The shelters that are still open are serving fewer people as they rearrange their space to meet social distancing guidelines.

State and local governments face several challenges. They need to find safe places for people in the shelters that are closing. They need to decompress the shelters that are open. They need to find places for people to get off the streets.

Because this is a large-scale problem that needs to be addressed right away, many state and local governments have looked at hotels and school dormitories for immediate relief. The coronavirus pandemic has left hotels with huge numbers of vacant rooms. Colleges have sent students home as they transition to online classes, leaving campus dorms mostly empty. But some decisions to help the homeless during these times have drawn criticism. 

At the end of March, the City of Las Vegas sparked national outrage by setting up an outdoor shelter in a parking lot. Las Vegas had to close a 500-bed homeless shelter because one of the clients had tested positive for COVID-19. The city secured a parking lot at the Casman Center convention complex and marked out a grid on the pavement for sleeping spaces. Originally, volunteers had placed carpeting across the paved surface for sleeping, but had to remove it because it was hard to disinfect.

Las Vegas has around 6,500 homeless residents, but it also has more than 147,000 hotel rooms. The image of people sleeping in a parking lot with vacant luxury hotels gleaming in the background is searing. This parking lot incident follows condemnation of Las Vegas for making it illegal last year for people to sleep on the sidewalks. People without shelter face a misdemeanor punishable by fines up to $1,000, or jail time up to 6 months if they have to sleep in a public place.

The image of people sleeping in a parking lot with vacant luxury hotels gleaming in the background is searing.

The city has started responding to critics circulating the parking lot image on social media. They have installed a complex of large tents in the parking lot. The tents have 10 foot wide sleeping areas curtained off within the tents, and each sleeping area has a cot. The tents have been reserved for homeless persons who are sick with coronavirus but not ill enough to go to the hospital. 

Critics have pointed out that this is only a small improvement. Why not just negotiate with the hotels for their vacant rooms? Las Vegas is in Clark County, Nevada, and city officials have said that it is Clark County’s responsibility to negotiate with hotel operators. Clark County officials, for their part, have said they have not had any success working with hotel owners and managers. 

Other cities and states have been more out front on this issue than Las Vegas. Some have explored using college dorms. Santa Fe, New Mexico, has secured dorms on a local college campus so that people can get out of homeless shelters and off the streets to self-quarantine.

Hank Hughes of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness spoke about Santa Fe’s approach on a recent webinar hosted by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). He said that all homeless shelters have been closed in the state, and a lot of the state’s homeless people camp out. The dorm space secured by the city will be able to house all of its homeless population.

However, many locations have not had luck using college dorms to shelter homeless people during the pandemic. Some colleges are still housing students, especially those from foreign countries who cannot return home. Colleges have also been hit hard financially by the shutdown orders. Like many businesses, they are making plans on how to re-open once the pandemic fades. Right now, many colleges are planning on having students back in the fall semester. At that point, how will they deal with the needs of homeless people still living on campus?

Right now, many colleges are planning on having students back in the fall semester. At that point, how will they deal with the needs of homeless people still living on campus?

Most cities and states have focused their efforts on negotiating deals to use hotel rooms for homeless persons. Hotels are largely vacant in most parts of the country, especially in coronavirus hotspots. People can self-quarantine in a secure room. They have access to television and the internet, and can charge their phones and devices. They have proper bathroom and washing facilities. Organizations that serve homeless communities can continue providing supportive services at these locations. Services may include meal delivery, healthcare outreach and mental health counseling.

State and local governments face challenges as they try to secure large numbers of hotel rooms on short notice. Many hotel operators were not keen to provide rooms for homeless persons before the pandemic. They often cite concerns about room damage, substance abuse, disruptions from people with mental illness, and loss of business.

Where I live in Caledonia County, Vermont, there is only one shelter, and it had to close because of the pandemic. Since much of Vermont is very rural, most small towns do not have homeless shelters or services. The state provides hotel vouchers during winter months so that homeless persons can get out of the cold. There is only one run-down motel in the county that will accept the state’s homeless assistance vouchers.

Now, with the coronavirus pandemic growing, many hotel operators have more concerns about providing rooms for homeless persons. Hotels are worried about staff safety if they shelter people with COVID-19 symptoms. They may also be short-staffed because of stay-at-home orders. They will have extra responsibility for cleaning and disinfecting their properties, plus having to enforce social distancing requirements.

New York City has negotiated for thousands of hotel rooms, with so many now vacant because of the pandemic. With a large homeless population in shelters, city officials fear a rapid spread of the disease among this vulnerable population. New York City has experience negotiating with hotel operators for large scale disasters, having leased blocks of hotel rooms after Superstorm Sandy. The state of New York also has a right to shelter law, so the city works with a number of hotels on an ongoing basis for shelter overflow.

The state of California has been securing hotel rooms for homeless residents across the state. Governor Gavin Newsom announced that the state has identified 15,000 hotel and motel rooms to house homeless people during the pandemic. The state’s effort alone is not enough to meet the need. California has about 150,000 people experiencing homelessness. .

Image by cga.ct.gov

Connecticut is one of the states that moved quickly to find hotel rooms for homeless people. Richard Cho, of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, talked about the state’s efforts on a recent webinar hosted by NLIHC.

Cho said that in late March, homeless shelters were moving people into hotel rooms on a case-by-case basis. They focused on moving people who showed COVID-19 symptoms or had health conditions that put them at greater risk. As cases started rising rapidly from nearby New York City, it was clear the state needed a rapid decompression of homeless shelters to keep the virus from spreading among the homeless population.

A state task force was quickly put together, and within two weeks more than 1,000 people had been placed in hotel rooms, almost all of the state’s homeless residents. State funds were used towards the new housing, as well as for meal delivery, outreach and support services. The state worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and FEMA will reimburse 75% of the cost. Hotel negotiations were challenging, according to Cho. Hotel operators had concerns about liability, property damage, and whether people would be able to leave after the crisis.

Now that the hotel effort is mostly complete, Cho said, the next step will be to revive the focus on housing. As people start leaving the hotel rooms after the crisis, he said what they will really need is a lot more rental assistance vouchers.

Homeless persons are experiencing the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. It is in all our interests to make sure that people without shelter can safely quarantine. As the pandemic goes on, more people will not be able to pay their rent. Once states start lifting eviction bans, we could see a wave of people losing their homes.

Federal emergency rental assistance or a national waiver on rent payments during the pandemic may limit how many people find themselves on the streets. What we do now to keep our most vulnerable neighbors safe will lay the groundwork for how we tackle the affordable housing crisis that may follow this pandemic.