The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on so many people across our country and across the world. However, relatively few are considering the impact of the pandemic on several of our communities’ already most marginalized groups. This includes individuals living without homes. As just about every company promotes messages about “staying safe at home” many unhoused people have no safe space in which to quarantine. While billboards and commercials offer soundbytes intended to reassure us about how we’re all “in this alone together,” many people facing homelessness have been forced to weigh physical distancing advisories with the need to travel in groups based on much more immediate safety issues like staying warm, avoiding violence or sharing food, tents, and so on. Furthermore, far too many people who are investing energy in supporting people on the street are doing so in ways that fail to prioritize what unhoused people themselves say they want and need.
It’s hard enough for most of us to fathom what it is truly like to live without a home, and a good stretch harder than that to imagine how much worse it has gotten since the quarantines began in March. Most people aren’t even thinking about it because it is not relevant to their lives. Here are just a few ways in which life has gotten more challenging for unhoused people during pandemic times:
¨ Phone access: People living without homes have often depended on libraries, bus stations, and a number of other spots like that to keep their phones charged. However, during the height of the pandemic, many of those spots closed down, or prohibited people from congregating around outlets for longer than a handful of minutes. Though some organizations (the RLC among them) started handing out portable chargers, those only last so long until they become just another thing that needs to be plugged in. Meanwhile, some organizations set up charging stations outside of their door (also something the RLC did for a few months), but that has been difficult to sustain as neighboring businesses complain about the increase of people standing, sitting, or sometimes sleeping around doorways.
¨ Shower access: Showers can be extremely hard to come by when one is living unhoused, but as the pandemic took hold, options became even fewer. In some instances, that was because community resources that offered shower access temporarily closed down. However, in other instances, it was about the loss of creative workarounds. For example, a gym membership—especially to a place like Planet Fitness that is open late or even overnight at some locations— can be comparatively cheap, and provide both a place to be indoors and shower access. But, unfortunately, even as gyms have reopened in Massachusetts, showers remain off limits.
¨ Cash access: Some people living without homes make their only income by asking for spare change from passersby. But, when the quarantines went into full swing, foot and even car traffic reduced dramatically, as did people to ask for help. And, many of those who continued to be out and about became even more likely to avoid approaching or being approached by strangers, especially those who they perceive to be “unclean.” On top of all that, many stores became (and remain) much less inclined to accept cash in favor of modes of payment that require less contact.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s also the reality that bathroom access has dramatically reduced, while it has become no more legal than it used to be to go to the bathroom outside. Water may be out of reach as even water founds are shutdown. Treatment options for individuals struggling with substances has been unpredictable, with some detoxes kicking people out so that they could meet quarantine expectations. And so much more.
Of course, once one thinks about it, it is not hard to see how these ways in which life has gotten more difficult to navigate also make finding housing far more challenging, too. How does someone get a job interview if there’s no way to reliably reach them? How do they show up to an interview or potential housing opportunity if they have not been able to shower in several days? How do they even consider doing laundry, if they are struggling to meet other basic needs like food?
So, what can be done to support unhoused people during this time (and beyond)? Here are just a handful of ideas:
¨ Don’t pretend not to see someone. It can be easy to just avert one’s eyes and pretend not to see. People use this as a strategy to avoid being asked for money, or just to avoid slowing down in their day. But, during a time when people living without homes are being treated even more than usual as if they do not exist, being someone who at least is willing to make eye contact and say “hello” can make a difference.
¨ Don’t be driven by your own discomfort. As aforementioned, people facing homelessness have sometimes been forced to gather in new and different places during the pandemic in order to get their needs met. This has included around storefronts that put out charging stations, or that have begun to offer some more food access to make up for those sources that have shutdown. Unfortunately, that has also led to an uptick in complaints from store owners, customers, and residents living in nearby apartments who express fear or unease about the people they are seeing gather in these spots. The reality, though, is that seeing an unhoused person or having to walk by them will not hurt anyone. No, not even if they’re using drugs, it won’t generally hurt anyone else. Pushing for people who are struggling to just remain out of sight doesn’t really help any of us in the end, and can be deadly for them.
¨ If you want to help, start by listening. Really, truly listening. This includes asking people what they need or want, rather than just deciding for them. It is easy to get caught up in one’s own idea of what sort of “help” a person might need, but we aren’t living their life. Deciding for someone what they need can have the end result of making them feel like they’re even more invisible and alone.
¨ Avoid deciding ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ for someone. It is easy to fall into a moralistic trap. Those who say things like, “I will give you money, so long as you promise not to use it on drugs or alcohol,” or refuse to give money because they believe that’s what someone will do probably have never had to survive living without a home. Some of them are making assumptions based on stereotypes about what unhoused people do. But, perhaps even more importantly, for those who have developed a physical addiction, abrupt withdrawal can actually be deadly, and at the very least, extremely painful. And, let’s be honest: Which one of us would not want to seek some comfort if we had to face living on the street?
¨ Don’t treat unhoused people like children. Adults living without homes are grown ups just like anyone else. They should not be told how to dress or do their hair, or what to say to others unless they are asking for that specific type of support.
¨ Remember your own privilege where you have it. If you find yourself getting angry or upset at catching sight of someone going to the bathroom in an alleyway, or sleeping near a doorway that you want to enter, try to think about how you might feel and what you might do if you suddenly lost access to all the bathrooms in your home and workplace, or if you hadn’t had a place to sleep in days that didn’t leave you vulnerable to whoever might walk by. What strategies to get food might you use that you never would have considered before if you hadn’t eaten in days? Or had access to a shower?
¨ Carry information about food, bathroom, shower, and electrical power access. If you have access to these details, carry them on you and give them out as needed. There are still lots of resources that get under utilized simply because people do not know that they exist.
¨ Be generous where you can be. if you have the resources to do so, carrying items like granola bars, clean and dry socks, foot and hand warmers (depending on the season!), or cash with you to share with others can be huge. (Though make sure you’re giving someone something they actually want and need!) These small gifts can be a big deal for someone not only because they have a need for the item you are helping to provide, but because you are someone who is demonstrating that you see and hear them rather than looking away.
¨ Don’t try to be anyone’s savior. We all have the potential to make a huge difference in someone else’s life. Sometimes it is as simple as just making space to sit with them in darkness, or hear their pain. But trying to be someone’s savior is often a selfish act (even unintentionally) that is about the ’savior’ themself feeling guilty or wanting to feel good. It too commonly ends with someone getting burned out, feeling taken advantage of, hurt, or disappointed in some significant way. None of us alone have the power to change the housing crisis or the other systems that are failing to meet so many people’s basic needs. We are most effective when we each remember that we are all a piece of the bigger puzzle, and can partner—but not control— navigating toward a better world.
For more, check out these resources:
¨ ‘We the Unhoused’ a podcast by Theo Henderson—http://tiny.cc/wetheunhoused
¨ ‘Homeless During the Coronavirus’ an article in Time Magazine—http://tiny.cc/homelessduringcorona
¨ ‘The Pandemic is Already Hitting the Homeless Hard’ an article in The Nation—http://tiny.cc/pandemichomelessness
¨ ‘What Its Like Becoming Homeless During a Pandemic’ an article in in Vice—http://tiny.cc/pandemichomelessness