The COVID- 19 pandemic has exasperated the existing inequalities and very specially the condition of homeless people in urban areas. Homelessness was a crisis that was overlooked and minimized over the years by most countries and today, it has been compounded by another health crisis. As the pandemic spreads, the homeless are facing extreme challenges – shelters are full or closed and the risk of getting the virus in overcrowded shelters is keeping many on the streets. People affected by coronavirus are being evicted from their apartments and pushed out into the streets to join the homeless ranks, because of the fears and biases. Some essential workers on the frontline are moving out into the streets to protect their families and becoming street homeless. Many homeless people have died from the
According to the World Health Organization, the best way to beat to beat back COVID-19 is to stay home, wash hands and practice physical distance. The 150 million homeless people do not have the luxury to practice social distancing, whether on the streets or in the shelters. Physical distancing is also a problem for the 1.6 billion people who live in inadequate housing, and informal settlements in overcrowded conditions, lacking access to water and sanitation. Homelessness has become incompatible with health. Criminalization of the homeless around the globe continues to be practiced even during the pandemic. In some cities in France and elsewhere, homeless people are ticketed for being on the streets.
In their attempts to fight the COVID- 19 pandemic, some governments are taking steps to house the homeless: in Berlin and Denmark governments have repurposed youth hostels; California has acquired 15,000 hotel rooms. Kenya and Ethiopia have committed to provide water and sanitation to informal settlements. Canada, Spain and the United States have put moratoriums on evictions and suspension of utilities for nonpayment dues is also prohibited.
Although, human right to adequate housing had been accepted in principle by all countries, no countries in the world have taken steps to ensure access to adequate housing to its citizens. The recently concluded United Nations 58th session of the Commission for Social Development, resolution on the priority theme: “Affordable housing and Social Protection Systems for to address homelessness” has highlighted that “governments have the primary responsibility to end homelessness, including prevention, support for persons who experience homelessness, and long-term solutions.”
As governments worldwide are adopting emergency packages in response to the COVID-19 crisis, it is critical that the needs and demands of homeless workers, individuals and families be at the center of these measures so that no one is truly left behind during this global health and socioeconomic crisis. It is a harsh reminder that the most vulnerable people are the first victims in major socioeconomic disruptions. Many homeless people have died around the world, but the lack of homeless specific data is another reality of their marginalization.
During this pandemic, we have a window of opportunity to advocate for the homeless and those living in inadequate shelters to ensure access to emergency and long-term housing. Our advocacy efforts should be directed to all levels of government, from the local to the national to the international governments.
It is in this context of advocacy, the members of the NGO Working Group to End Homelessness issued the Statement on COVID- 19 and Homelessness. This statement can be used as template for your advocacy in your city or country. Here is the Statement for your use, (click here for the document):
The United Nations NGO Working Group to End Homelessness recognizes that people experiencing homelessness are dangerously vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus has potentially devastating consequences for those living on the streets or in crowded congregate shelters, where they cannot quarantine themselves, wash their hands, or protect themselves as we have all been instructed to do.
As Leilani Farha, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, noted, “Housing has become the frontline of defense against the coronavirus. Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation.” How does one shelter in place, maintain distance, wash their hands, wear masks or gloves, isolate or quarantine, when one has no home and minimal other resources? We must recognize that those sleeping on our streets are nonetheless a part of our communities, and that we are only as safe and as healthy as our most vulnerable neighbors.
In most societies there is an unprecedented proportion of minorities among those at risk of (or already contracting) the disease, including within the homeless population. Homeless populations are already affected by serious health concerns, which increase vulnerability to the virus; these are often results or reflections of lack of housing and housing inadequacy, associated with food and water insecurity and poverty.
The hidden homeless, rather than being visibly on the street, face housing insecurity/inadequacy. An increasingly common scenario resulting from COVID-19 conditions is that victims of domestic violence and abuse are now confined in close quarters and an exacerbated situation of dependency with their abusers. As mothers with children comprise much of these cases, a gendered response appropriate to families is warranted.
Refugees, international migrants, internally displaced persons, victims of trafficking, and slum dwellers should also be reframed for inclusion within the hidden homeless category. Generally, women and children disproportionately comprise these groups. The hidden homeless face similar challenges for attaining social distance and adequate sanitation during this pandemic, as well as meeting basic needs and securing income.
The facts and moral urgency are clear. Given their extreme vulnerability, we must act to ensure that people who are experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity are protected, their unique challenges confronted, and their specific needs met, during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond. Simply put, we will not be able to control the coronavirus unless public health actions and standards apply to all.
The NGO Working Group to End Homeless calls on the United Nations and its Member States to explicitly include measures for homelessness in all COVID-19 relief efforts, including in humanitarian response plans. In particular, we call for:
- A centralized and coordinated approach led by governments to ensure efficient and equitable deployment of all resources. This approach should include NGOs, faith communities, and other service providers as partners.
- Counts of people on the streets and in communal shelters to establish the appropriate number of isolation/quarantine spaces using creative methods such as hotel rooms, vacant housing, etc.
- As immediately as possible and focusing first on areas with high levels or “hot spots” of street homelessness and in slums, screening of people for COVID-19 symptoms and testing where possible, and movement of people off the streets and out of communal shelters into isolation/quarantine spaces. Ideally, these spaces are self-contained rooms with attached bathrooms.
- Assurance that people on the streets, in communal shelters, and in temporary isolation/quarantine spaces have access to basic needs like food and hygiene items, and supportive social services and healthcare services, including COVID-19 testing.
- The provision of immediate opportunities for affordable, safe, and supported family separation to victims of domestic violence through adequate housing provisions.
- Inclusion of funding for homelessness prevention, such as rental assistance; homelessness services; and long-term permanent housing in any COVID-19 emergency funding packages. When possible, priority should be given to families with children and areas with high eviction rates.
- Engagement in a thorough review of the response to COVID-19 and preparation of plans for future pandemics or national crises which include and address issues related to persons who are most vulnerable, particularly those living without homes.
We thank the United Nations, particularly the Economic and Social Council’s Commission for Social Development, for their recent focus on the work of ending homelessness around the world. We extend gratitude to all Member States who have already included homelessness in their COVID-19 relief efforts. A strong and thoughtful response to the intersections of homelessness and COVID-19 will help to ensure that “no one is left behind” even in these challenging times, as we continue to push forward for the achievement of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Here are some resources from the office of the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing which can guide you to take action.
Teresa Kotturan SCN
Sisters of Charity Federation