Dave “Dogdave” Hirschman, a 53-year-old man who has been experiencing homelessness since 1984, is starting to lose hope. Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, he lost his shelter at a “city-sanctioned homeless camp” in Eugene, Oregon, and the vision in his left eye due to a stroke. He says the shelters near him are prioritizing Covid-19 patients, a reasonable measure that has nonetheless left him to sleep in a doorway. “I am sick now. I am finding blood in the Kleenex when I clear my sinuses,” he says. “There are quite a few folks out here who are in as dire straits as I am, that feel forgotten and abandoned. I can say for certain that without obtaining housing soon, I have no way of making it through the winter.”
Unhoused people all over the country are struggling profoundly during the pandemic, whether they’ve been experiencing homelessness for as long as Hirschman has or have only recently fallen on hard times. A college student studying computer science in Kentucky, who wished to remain anonymous, became homeless during the pandemic after having to choose between paying for classes and making rent. Social distancing left them without couches to sleep on. They consider themselves fortunate: They are mentally healthy, and have a phone and laptop. “Without technology, I don’t know where I’d be. I’m calling a day or two ahead to make sure I can reserve a bed at the homeless shelter,” they say. “It’s brutally cold. You can’t sleep outside. You will die.”
Experiencing homelessness has always been a dire health risk, and Covid-19 has only worsened that danger. Unhoused people are disproportionately affected by health conditions that can make coronavirus cases more severe, and are often forced to shelter, eat, and access hygiene in congregate settings where social distance is difficult to maintain. Experts knew this from the start, and they have launched heroic efforts to create safe places for unhoused people to shelter and quarantine during the pandemic. Many of those programs, especially those that placed homeless people in empty hotel rooms, have been successful. Now, under the Biden administration, advocates are hopeful that they’ll be able to expand and improve those programs, and treat homelessness as the solvable problem it is.
Before the pandemic began, rates of homelessness were at the highest they’d been in the United States in 20 years. While data is still forthcoming, it’s hard to imagine that the pandemic wouldn’t have worsened them. “We know that a lot of nearly homeless people were living in doubled-up situations, and because of the pandemic they may have been forced out,” says Gary Painter, a social innovation researcher at the University of Southern California who specializes in affordable housing. “The most likely scenario for those people is they end up living in their cars.” For people who were already experiencing homelessness at the beginning of the pandemic, Covid-19 was instantly world-altering. “In the early days, particularly for homeless people with significant mental health disorders, people were absolutely confused. Where did all the people go?” says Carol Wilkins, a consultant who specializes in the connections between housing, health, and homelessness. “The ways they had of getting food and getting money to get food had disappeared. People were hungry.”
Then help arrived for some. “During the height of the initial wave—April, May, June 2020—people started putting so much money into homelessness,” says Drew Capone, a water sanitation and hygiene researcher at Georgia Tech who has studied homelessness. Additional funding was also made available to shelters and organizations fighting homelessness through the Cares Act and other forms of government assistance, which allowed states like California to find innovative ways to house people safely. “The most important action that was taken was Project Roomkey,” says Painter, referring to the effort to move high-risk people from the streets or congregate shelters into unsused hotel rooms. “It was successful at two things: preventing large numbers of homeless individuals and families from actually contracting Covid, and moving people inside at very high rates.”