This article was written by Tony Shu, co-founder of Breaktime.
As of today, 44 states have issued some form of “stay-at-home” orders to suppress the spread of COVID-19. Millions of Americans are now physically distancing, but amidst the rapid circulation of well-intentioned social media posts encouraging people to #StayHome, something has been overlooked: hundreds of thousands of Americans do not have homes to stay at in the first place.
553,742 individuals in the United States experience homelessness each night, nearly as many people as the population of the State of Wyoming. Contrary to what public figures may have initially claimed, COVID-19 is turning out to be nothing near a “great equalizer.” While it is true that most Americans are impacted by the virus in some capacity, data reveals higher rates of devastation among certain populations, such as people experiencing homelessness and African American communities. In the past weeks, we have witnessed how a seemingly indiscriminate virus, the supposed “equalizer,” illuminates the intensifying inequities in America and highlights the urgency of addressing the homelessness crisis our communities have faced long before this pandemic.
Individuals experiencing homelessness have been routinely treated as an afterthought; the inability of our government to provide adequate accommodations is only made more apparent during this pandemic. The City of Boston, which has been praised for its plan to end youth and young adult homelessness and its quick action of converting local college dorms to single-occupancy emergency shelters, was still unable to act fast enough to prevent the rapid spread of the virus among people experiencing homelessness. Reports show that one-third of the homeless population in Boston has tested positive for COVID-19.
However, the State of Massachusetts has yet to release a comprehensive plan to support the homeless population during this crisis. In fact, guidance from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health includes a recommendation that shelters simply put up ‘tents’ next to their existing structures to promote greater physical distancing.
In Las Vegas, Nevada, authorities have painted a grid on a parking lot, with sleeping spaces spread six feet apart, as a makeshift ‘shelter.’ Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro notes the absurdity of resorting to this solution while hundreds of thousands of hotel rooms in the city lie empty. In a time when shelters and direct service nonprofits are already under unprecedented strain, many governments are still failing to step up and take decisive and necessary actions to support those experiencing homelessness.
When staying at home is necessary to save lives, what does that say about how we value, respect, and protect the lives of those who have no home? Now that “stay-at-home” has become a public health mandate, when will stable-housing-for-all become a public health mandate?
The lack stable housing has been shown to have dire consequences on an individual’s health, making COVID-19 just one of the many infectious diseases and chronic health issues that people experiencing homelessness disproportionately face. Additionally, these individuals continue to face systemic barriers to finding and maintaining employment. The economic uncertainty and skyrocketing unemployment caused by the pandemic will only make economic mobility even more difficult to achieve.
Now that “stay-at-home” has become a public health mandate, when will stable-housing-for-all become a public health mandate?
At Breaktime, our mission has always been to elevate young adults out of homelessness through transitional employment and empowerment. Indeed, stable employment has been noted as the most critical factor in achieving and maintaining stable housing. Through our programs, we have met some of the hardest-working and most resilient young adults. It is now more important than ever that we work to tilt the odds more in their favor. It is now more important than ever to empower them with a loving foundation on which they can nurture their individual talents and dreams.
While Breaktime’s work and the work of countless other mission-oriented organizations is now more challenging, the pandemic plainly highlights the increasing need for our government, organizations, businesses, and communities to whole-heartedly support and develop innovative initiatives to ensure that everyone is able to lead stable lives. What we must now do is double-down on our efforts — we must unite and expand the community of champions committed to ensuring everyone has a fair opportunity for a meaningful career and stable housing.
For those that have the privilege of being able to stay-at-home, we absolutely must continue to do so, and encourage others to do so with zeal. However, we must also use this time to cultivate our awareness and empathy. This crisis has undoubtedly revealed the fragility of all of our lives and well-being. As we reflect, I hope that this call to consciousness — to remember that our communities can only be as strong as our most vulnerable members — hits close to home.