Nov 5, 2020 - Economy

Coronavirus raises new challenges for those who are homeless

Illustration of hand holding a virus cardboard sign

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The challenge of helping people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic has spurred some cities to action and prompted bitter divisions in others, as shelters struggle with the new challenges of adhering to the CDC's social distancing, PPE and sanitary guidelines.

Why it matters: Some cities have tried new ways to help, such as buying up vacant hotels, apartments and other buildings to use as housing. Some feel grief as outdoor homeless encampments grow.

  • And a triple threat — the advent of cold weather, new spikes in coronavirus cases, and the lifting of evictions moratoriums — is looming.

The backstory: Nobody knows whether the national homeless population is rising or falling in 2020, since the annual point-in-time count is conducted by HUD on a single night in January and thus doesn't capture what's happened during the pandemic.

  • The current situation differs vastly from one place to another.
  • Early in the pandemic, people feared that COVID-19 would travel rapidly through homeless populations. But that hasn't played out as feared, in part because communities have implemented the CDC's guidelines and tried to move people experiencing homelessness from shelters to hotels or other dwellings.

"The hotel industry has been hit really hard by the coronavirus — there's a lot of empty rooms — and in a lot of communities, hotel owners are making deals with city officials," Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, tells Axios.

Where it stands: Particularly in high-tourism cities, where hotel owners are saddled with rooms they can't fill, hoteliers are selling buildings outright to governments, which are using money from the CARES Act and other programs.

  • San Diego introduced Operation Shelter to Home in April, moving people experiencing homelessness into the San Diego Convention Center to prevent the spread of COVID-19. About 900 people are being put into permanent housing through that program.
  • In October, San Diego agreed to buy two former hotels to convert to affordable housing — with room for another 400 people.
  • San Diego Mayor Kevin L. Faulconer told KUSI: "It's not enough to keep people off the street for a night or a week, but how do we get them into that place of their own for good."

The other side: Outdoor homeless encampments have been mushrooming — particularly in Western cities where they were already entrenched. This has led to finger-pointing, with everyone agreeing that people experiencing homelessness are not well-served on the street or in inappropriate shelters, but disagreeing on what to do about it.

  • Los Angeles has agonized over outdoor homelessness, with the city council voting last week to postpone a contentious vote on encampment bans. Critics say the measure would amount to "criminalizing homelessness."
  • In New York City, a battle over the fate of men who are homeless in a single-room-occupancy hotels on the Upper West Side turned ugly: A lawyer who represents people who want to move the men to a former Radisson hotel downtown had his home vandalized and the doors glued shut.

The bottom line: The dynamics will shift again this winter.

  • "There's a tidal wave of evictions coming at us, and it's going to produce some homelessness for sure," Linda Gibbs, a principal at Bloomberg Associates and former deputy mayor for health and human services in New York City, tells Axios.
  • People are "tired of spending money on emergency interventions" rather than permanent solutions, she said.
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