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A Pandemic Winter Could Blow Up the Housing Crisis

Looking ahead to a new wave of evictions, flu season, dropping temperatures, and a pandemic with no end in sight.

“Coronavirus hasn’t devastated the homeless as many feared,” the Associated Press reported earlier this month. The piece went on to detail how some public health officials were surprised that they had not seen major spikes in the coronavirus among the houseless population in cities like San Francisco, though most also said that it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions. “This may be an example where being outside and unsheltered, just in terms of Covid, maybe let people be at lower risk,” one explained. “But again, part of that is that we just don’t really know.”

In Denver, the positivity rate among those tested at nine local shelters was, at 6 percent, double that of the city’s general population. In Chicago, 22 percent of the city’s houseless population and shelter staff came back with positive test results, though that number has been declining. At the San Diego Convention Center in July, the positivity rate was 15 times lower than the rest of the city’s; in New York’s shelter system, the positivity rate was half that of the general population.

These numbers are necessarily fluid and incomplete: Cronkite News reported that the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency that oversees programs meant to directly service the houseless population, has so far refused to direct the programs under its control to report the number of positive cases or deaths. And while Congress set aside $4 billion for homeless programs in the Cares Act, reporters found that four months out from the bill’s passing, less than a third of the allocated funds had been dispersed. Even the funding that had been released is on hold as cities and counties wait for federal guidance on how to spend it.

What all of this points to is that we don’t really know the full impact of the pandemic on unhoused people across the country. But the question of how to keep people without stable housing safe during the pandemic only gets more urgent as summer fades.

It isn’t just one thing: Flu season is approaching, and public health experts are warning of another spike in Covid-19 cases. The coming cold weather will also make it more dangerous to live outdoors, especially in Northern and Midwestern cities, where houseless populations have thus far managed to avoid some risk of illness by staying in outdoor encampments. On top of that, an eviction crisis is brewing because rent relief on a mass scale has largely been abandoned by state and local governments. Congress failed to approve another round of stimulus checks before taking off for vacation, while the distribution of the first round of checks and the president’s hastily conceived reduced stimulus still has to reach millions of qualifying adults. All of this is dangerous and inhumane on its own. Taken together, it’s catastrophic.

Organizers and advocates are warning that the winter months will be especially brutal for a population that was already made vulnerable by major policy failures. But organizers and unhoused people know what’s necessary to prevent disaster as the overlapping crises of affordability, homelessness, and the pandemic come to a head. Band-Aid fixes won’t hold for much longer.

In New York, the right to shelter, guaranteeing anyone on the street a spot in a shelter, was established by two lawsuits brought against the state in 1979 and 1982. But this was only a partial victory. “Even within these institutions, people were not given the proper services that they needed,” Celina Trowell, the homeless union organizer for the grassroots organization VOCAL-NY, told me. “It became a commodity.”

New York has since repeatedly refused to take the next logical step of guaranteeing the right to housing, and the violence of this policy failure remains concentrated among Black and Latinx New Yorkers, who are disproportionately represented in New York’s houseless and prison populations. “For the longest time it’s been, ‘Let’s just find reasons to criminalize and institutionalize them so they can be locked up, medicated, and off the streets,’” Trowell said. “There have been so many different intentional methods of trying to clean up the poor, as opposed to have an actual humanistic response to the deep-rooted structural issues in the country.”

The fact that New York, a city that already outpaces its Western counterparts in permanent shelters for the houseless, continues to struggle to commit to long-term housing solutions speaks to a larger need for America to move beyond the temporary shelter system.

Several cities and counties have already taken steps toward this. The Salt Lake City Coalition to End Homelessness drafted five viable options for the local government to undertake, among them: granting hotel vouchers, leasing existing buildings, buying a facility outright for long-term use, opening a hotel for the houseless, and maintaining the funding of public housing. (The coalition has already checked two items off the list, having secured 80 hotel vouchers and a local dining hall that will be used as an overflow space for 58 more people.) In northern California, Napa County officials announced that they will keep the shelter at the state-owned Napa Valley Expo fairgrounds open through the winter months—they had previously been renting out a motel that housed 66 residents, as local shelters had to reduce their capacity by roughly a third across the board to keep in line with social distancing measures. And in San Diego, the city bought and refurbished a 42-room motel in 2017, initially planning to use it as a rehabilitation center; when the coronavirus broke in the spring, the city decided to use it instead for housing.

Not all local governments have been so proactive, though. And in the void of government action, some communities have pursued this fix without waiting for official approval. In June, in the wake of the protests over Minneapolis police killing George Floyd, a group of houseless Minneapolis residents transformed a vacant hotel into a temporary shelter, complete with the support of local organizers. Lucy Geach was one of the Minneapolis residents who stepped in as a volunteer organizer following Floyd’s death and assisted at the hotel. “My neighborhood was on fire and there was a violent military occupation going on,” Geach said of her decision to volunteer. “It was an opportunity to use my skills, and the hotel was the perfect environment for me to put those skills to work.” But after just under two weeks of operation, the property owner, with the help of Minneapolis police, evicted the residents from the hotel following several overdoses on the premises.

Geach and Trowell both pointed to public buy-in as a major obstacle to the hotel conversion approach. Local homeowners and renters will often cling to hollow ideals about addressing the crisis, with neighbors regularly espousing a belief that something should be done to help the houseless but too often mobilizing against moves like providing housing or hotel vouchers in their vicinity—a cornerstone of Nimby arguments.

In New York, several Midtown hotels have been officially transitioned into shelters during the pandemic. The residents have been subject to ridicule and mean-spirited attacks in the press, namely from the New York Post, which has turned the hotels into an ongoing series. Troy Sterling, a man who has lived at one of the converted hotel shelters for two months, told NY1 that in reality, any residents dealing with drug addictions or mental illness are more a danger to themselves than their neighbors, adding, “The clientele in the … shelter system need more help than what they are given.”

Noting that similar efforts have taken root in her city, Geach pointed to the gentrification of south Minneapolis, which she said was becoming “increasingly policed and increasingly white.” She has since taken a step back from volunteering—many of the hotel residents moved to an encampment in Powderhorn Park that was also broken up by police—though she still offers rides in her car to those who need them. Geach said that she felt that the situation was ultimately difficult for the hotel organizers and the post-eviction volunteers.

“Winter is coming, and I don’t know if it’s the community’s job to fill this gap,” Geach added, noting that a problem as systemically rooted and widespread as the housing crisis can’t be solved by mutual aid alone. “Ultimately, the amount of resources necessary to make real impact and change needs to come from the state, not just us.”

While the required solutions to these issues are often unique to their communities, Trowell voiced similar criticisms of the New York state legislature and of Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo’s combined response—or lack thereof—on homelessness over the past five months. “You had opportunity to address how you were going to create a plan to help folks have a pathway to permanent housing—the government did not do that,” Trowell said. “We did not increase the funding for housing, we decreased funding for capital construction of housing, and we have a governor who pushed back against taking federal government money. And then [Cuomo] refuses to tax the rich.”

In the void where state and federal unemployment assistance and other baseline social safety net programs like a universal housing guarantee should be, there is too often only cruelty to be found. In addition to the lack of desperately needed stimulus funds, thousands of people will soon be faced with the unrelieved housing bills accrued over the past five months. With little promise of states continuing to block evictions, and a bone-dry job market, the winter will be especially tough for the families and individuals who find themselves living out of a car or in a tent. The onus is again on these government agencies to act. And while some have accepted this call in small steps, far too many have been content to shuffle their houseless residents around their city from one untenable living situation to the next.