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Hunger, Homelessness, and COVID-19: How the Pandemic Has Shed Light on Long-Standing Injustices


Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week is an annual weeklong program sponsored by the National Coalition for Homeless and the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness. Image courtesy hhweek.org


This article was written by Helen He (Programs Team Member and Editor of Breaktime Blog)— with support from Sam Goodman (Director of Communications), Isaiah Romulus (Programs Team Member), and Shanelle Mendes (Programs Team Member).


Over this past week, Breaktime joined more than 700 organizations participating in 2020’s Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week — an annual week-long event aimed at raising awareness around the issue of poverty in America. This year, the program ran from November 15–22, with groups across the country sharing educational resources, fundraising, and hosting advocacy events (with speakers, book clubs, letters to legislators, and more) — work that has become all the more pertinent given the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on our most vulnerable communities.


Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week was first organized at Villanova University in 1975, and is now jointly sponsored by the National Coalition for Homeless and the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness. It is intentionally held during the week before Thanksgiving each year, as a way to lean into a period focused on gratitude and giving.


Hunger & Homelessness Before and After COVID-19

This year, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the crises of hunger and homelessness have taken on a new sense of urgency. According to Feeding America, over 50 million Americans will experience food insecurity in 2020 — meaning they will lack access to enough food for an active and healthy life. This is nearly a 50% increase from pre-pandemic levels of 35 million — the lowest that food insecurity rates had been in more than 20 years.

Massachusetts has been hit especially hard — with the highest projected increase in food insecurity rate across the entire nation, at 59%. In Eastern Massachusetts, over 658,000 people will experience food insecurity this year. This amounts to one in eight people in Eastern Massachusetts, or nearly the entire population of the city of Boston.

Individuals experiencing homelessness are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Research has shown that they are twice as likely to be hospitalized if infected by COVID-19 than the general population, and two to three times more likely to die

People experiencing homelessness have also been significantly impacted by the pandemic. Even before COVID-19 hit, over half a million peopleexperienced homelessness on an average night in the U.S. — meaning 17 out of 10,000 Americans. The majority of this population (60%) is male, and nearly 37% are unsheltered — sleeping outside or in other locations not meant for human habitation.


Individuals experiencing homelessness are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Research has shown that they are twice as likely to be hospitalized if infected by COVID-19 than the general population, and two to three times more likely to die.


The reasons behind this include the fact that people experiencing homelessness tend to age up to 15–20 years faster than their housed counterparts, putting them at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from infection. People experiencing homelessness are also more likely to have pre-existing health conditions — both as a result and driver of their lack of housing. These risks are compounded by the facts that these individuals often shelter in shared accommodations where risk of transmission is high, and that they lack access to preventative measures such as masks and testing. As we wrote about earlier this year on the Breaktime Blog, people experiencing homelessness cannot “shelter at home” in the way that the general population has been instructed to do. Moreover, in intersection with the issue of hunger, people experiencing homelessness lack adequate access to nutritious food, hygiene, and sanitation — all of which are crucial to combating illnesses like COVID-19.


Disproportionate Impact on Vulnerable Groups: Communities of Color

Both hunger and homelessness disproportionately impact our society’s most vulnerable communities, including communities of color and young adults.


Even prior to COVID-19, Black individuals were 2.4 times more likely than White individuals to live in food-insecure households, and Latinx individuals were two times more likely. Now, although only 3% of all counties in the U.S. have a majority Black population, nearly 75% of the 25 counties projected to have the highest food insecurity rate in 2020 are majority Black. And, as Antonio Amaya — Executive Director of one of Breaktime’s community partners, La Comunidad — shared with Breaktime in a recent interview, food insecurity is “one of the biggest things” hitting the Latinx community right now.



Antonia Amaya, Executive Director of La Comunidad. Sebastian Ebarb / CITY OF BOSTON

With regards to homelessness, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans are the most likely to be homeless in America among all racial/ethnic groups — followed closely by Black, multiracial, and Hispanic/Latinx Americans. African Americans, for example, represent 13% of the general population in the U.S., but make up more than 40% of the homeless population.


These inequities have been further exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic. According to a report published by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, Black, Asian, and Latinx workers are overrepresented in jobs within the leisure and hospitality industries, which have been most impacted by COVID-19. They also have less access to paid sick leave and family leave in comparison to their white counterparts, as well as less access to adequate health care services.


As a result, many underrepresented employees of color in the U.S. are forced to choose between losing their income or risking their lives to go to work. In fact, this April, Latinx workers experienced the highest unemployment rate among all racial/ethnic groups, at 18.9%.


These inequities have led to a disproportionately high rate of COVID-19 within this groups. In Chicago, for instance, Black residents make up 60% of COVID-related deaths, but only 29% of the general population. In this way, the pandemic has not only shed light on the vulnerability of the homeless population, but it has also exacerbated the disparities between homeless people of color and the homeless white population.


Disproportionate Impact on Vulnerable Groups: Youth and Young Adults

Youth and young adults also make up a significant portion of the food-insecure and homeless populations of America: nearly 40% of people experiencing homelessness in this country are under the age of 18, and one in 10 young adults aged 18–25 experience some form of homelessness over the course of a year. Young people identifying as LGBTQ+, pregnant and/or parenting, disabled, and African American or Native American are especially likely to experience homelessness, and more than 50% of homeless youth report being displaced from their homes as a result of family conflict.


Because the definition of “home” and “homelessness” used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has such a limited scope, a significant portion of this population of homeless youth is not accounted for in studies or reports. For this reason, youth homelessness is often referred to as “invisible homelessness” — and their lack of recognition has greatly inhibited the support and response they receive.


As a result of the pandemic, these homeless minors and young adults have faced even more vulnerability than before, especially without having parents or guardians to shelter in place with and with their typically lower levels of education. One statewide survey of 25 youths and young adults experiencing homelessness found that 100% of respondents reported a worsening of their conditions post-COVID. Despite nearly all homeless youth being aware of COVID-19 and most even taking active measures themselves to reduce their risk of infection, their challenges have still been compounded by the pandemic. They report experiencing an even more difficult time securing basic needs like food, clothes, housing, and health services (both physical and mental). In San Francisco, for example, emergency housing has “blindly excluded youths,” allotting fewer hotel rooms to them than their percentage of the population.

In Chicago, for instance, Black residents make up 60% of COVID-related deaths, but only 29% of the general population.

These individuals also report experiencing high levels of emotional distress(though research has yet to confirm whether this is greater than pre-pandemic levels), as well as increased substance use. Preliminary studies have also suggested that youths — and, in particular, youths of color — experiencing homelessness are more likely to have lost their jobs or had their educational trajectories disrupted.


What’s more, some young people who were previously housed pre-pandemic are now being driven into homelessness, as lockdown measures lead to a rise in domestic violence and family conflicts at home. One young adult — Johanna Vasquez, 19 — described how shelter-in-place left her boyfriend home and without a job, causing him to “be home more, fight more, [and] hit more.” When Vasquez and her 4-month-old child ultimately left that home for the sake of their own safety, they were met with long waiting lines to get into shelters, rather than the support they needed.


While the general population of America has received some sort of government support amid the pandemic via the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed in March, people experiencing homelessness — especially young adults, and especially people of color — have had a harder time accessing these resources, in spite of their greater need for the support. In theory, the CARES Act provides $1,200 checks to adults earning under $75,000 per year. In practice, however, many of those eligible do not actually receive the money supposedly allotted to them; The bill identifies recipients via tax filings and social security benefits statements, which many low-income and homeless people do not have. If this relief package is anything like the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008, around 3.4 million non-filers eligible for these stimulus payments may not actually receive them. In fact, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that 12 million non-filers will be at risk this time around, if action is not taken to reach out to these individuals. And, again, of this 12 million, the groups most at risk are disproportionately Black and Latinx — at 27% and 19% respectively.

These inequities, however, are unfortunately far from new or surprising. Instead, they stem from the long-standing structural racism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism that have persisted in this country.

According to Claudia Sahm, an economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, “[People who don’t file taxes or receive Social Security Administration benefits] are supposed to get the money, [but] there will be an expectation that those individuals will have to raise their hand and say, ‘Hey, I want my money’…If that person doesn’t come forward and say ‘I want my money… the government’s not going to find them and send them their money.”

Indeed, this has been the lived experience of a number of the young adults we work with at Breaktime as well. Cameron Corbett, who has worked with Breaktime since June of this year and has been on-and-off homeless for the past five years, said, “Some people like myself didn’t receive any government aid or received a stimulus check.”


Cameron Corbett, Breaktime Associate / Sam Goodman / BREAKTIME BLOG

These experiences and lack of resources all point to a dire need to better support youth and young adults experiencing homelessness — and particularly those of color. Urgent points of action include funding youth services proportionally to their percentage in the homeless population, establishing more kinship-based care to allow these young people to stay with financially-stable relatives, and investing more into ensuring the continuance of educational and vocational pursuits. As Colette Auerswald, Sherilyn Adams, and Marguerita Lightfoot have put it in their research paper, “Addressing youth homelessness in this pandemic is far easier than finding a drug to treat COVID-19. Effective treatments for youth homelessness have already been identified.” The only step left is to put them to action.


Time for Action

It is markedly clear that the pandemic has brought out deep disparities within our society — with negative impacts disproportionately on food-insecure individuals, people experiencing homelessness, underrepresented communities of color, and youth and young adults. These inequities, however, are unfortunately far from new or surprising. Instead, they stem from the long-standing structural racism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism that have persisted in this country. In this way, the confluence of these issues with COVID-19 have merely highlighted injustices we have long known to be true.


These deeply-rooted prejudices must be addressed before any progress can be made to end hunger, homelessness, and poverty. It is long past time to put an end to these crises — both of food insecurity and homelessness, as well as the injustices that intersect with them. We ask you today to join us in fighting these issues, and to continue advocating for these vulnerable populations — not only this week, but also beyond.





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