After moving out of the Higher Ground homeless shelter in Minneapolis Douglas Pyle, 49, reacts to seeing his hotel room for the first time Friday, May 1, 2020, in Minneapolis, MN.
During the pandemic, many more people have been transferred from homeless shelters to hotels, like Douglas Pyle in Minneapolis. David Joles/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Coronavirus Exposes the Inextricable Connection Between Housing and Health

Escalated efforts to get homeless and unsheltered people off the streets during coronavirus can serve us long after the crisis is over.

We have heard for too long that there is no true solution to homelessness, with excuse after excuse on why we just can’t do it. Well, guess what? During this pandemic — in many places — homelessness reforms that were long deemed implausible are happening, if only temporarily.

Over the last two months, cities have been showing just what it takes to expand capacity and safely house the homeless.

Winter shelters have remained opened, public property has been converted to shelters, housing navigation teams have expanded, more public-private partnerships have been established, hygiene and sanitation services have increased, and eviction moratoriums have been put into place. It is fitting that such an all-hands-on-deck response would come during a global pandemic, especially as Covid-19 can spread rapidly when people live in close quarters in shelters or on the streets. But for so many people sleeping rough on the streets of America, they face a crisis every day.

We need to explore which of these actions have been effective so we can make progress on permanent solutions to homelessness. This crisis has exposed the inextricable relationship between housing and health, and that connection will remain important long after lockdowns lift.

First and foremost, racial equity can no longer be optional: It must be an imperative. Covid-19 shines an even brighter light on the disparities in health and medical care for African Americans. Prior to the pandemic, communities of color were disproportionately represented in the homeless population. African Americans are 13% of the population, but represent more than 40% of the homeless, and America’s Latinx population represents 22% of the homeless versus 18% of the country. None of this information is new, and neither is institutional and structural racism.

Historically, housing has been riddled with remnants of redlining, racialized covenants, displacements and predatory inclusion. For policymakers to equitably assist individuals and families experiencing homelessness, embedding racial equity into housing policy cannot be seen as optional.

At the onset of this crisis, Minneapolis’ city council passed a resolution to put a racial equity lens on the city’s response and mitigation efforts to Covid-19. Initiatives that have come out of this approach include an Emergency Mental Health Fund, which provides resources to communities affected by coronavirus trauma, and a program for residents to observe Ramadan while maintaining social distancing. Other cities have created special coronavirus task forces focused on equity and racial disparities, including New York City and Oakland, in conjunction with regional leaders.

Second, we must recognize the link between housing and health in our policymaking. Safe, affordable housing — and conditions in neighborhoods surrounding a house — influence the health of individuals and families. It is because of this inextricable connection that we have historically seen major housing policy reform grow out of health crises.

Over the last two months, cities that recognize this relationship have secured housing for the homeless by procuring shelters, hotels, trailers and college dormitories. Baltimore provided hotel and motel vouchers. Chicago and Detroit added shelter capacity by partnering with local community-based organizations. Sacramento received RV-style trailers from California. If space has not been available, cities have been deploying hygiene stations in encampments and continuing to grant access to public restrooms.

Cities have also stepped up with policies to prevent new homelessness. In April, San Antonio, Charlotte and Boston created rental relief programs. Dallas, San Jose and Los Angeles developed ordinances preventing evictions during the pandemic. San Diego has not only provided shelters, but it is providing incentives to landlords who rent their units to homeless individuals.

Regional approaches have also taken center stage, providing and stretching resources for cities to do their job. In Washington, Seattle and King County worked together to expand homelessness services, and in Oregon, Portland and Multnomah County are doing the same. These regional approaches have seen an increased share of shelters, beds, hygiene stations, and motel vouchers made available to individuals experiencing homelessness.  

After the crisis, regionalism should continue to be a source of strength in homelessness policies. State and federal officials have also been critical allies during this time, and this must continue.

California has been a leader. In April, Governor Gavin Newsom launched Project Roomkey, an initiative to secure 15,000 hotel and motel rooms to house the homeless and protect them from Covid-19 spread. An unprecedented initiative funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Project Roomkey provides local governments with an up to 75% cost-share reimbursement for rooms, and this includes wraparound services such as health care. In Massachusetts, the state has established isolation and recovery sites, supported families in need of emergency assistance in domestic violence shelters, and provided additional funding to ensure individuals and families experiencing homelessness are protected and housed.  

At the federal level, there is always more that can be done, but the CARES Act gave local and state governments $5 billion dollars in Community Development Block Grants and $4 billion in Homeless Assistance Grants. As a result, local governments — in the short term — have been able to increase support for individuals and families experiencing homelessness through emergency rent payments, rapid re-housing, homelessness prevention, and shelter operations.

The National League of Cities campaign “Cities are Essential” is calling for $500 billion in direct support to cities of all sizes over these next two years to make sure we can support the people who live in our cities, including our homeless residents. City leaders are on the front lines of the response to this pandemic and there is an urgent need to provide necessary support to cities —  currently facing an unprecedented fiscal cliff — and to the more than 200 million Americans, both housed and unhoused, who are our friends, family, and neighbors.

This crisis has made it mandatory for cities to find safe and quality housing for individuals experiencing homelessness. As cities begin to reopen, they will need a continued strong partnership with federal and state governments to create sustainable pathways for the homeless to become permanently housed. While the pandemic will recede, it has made clearer what has been true all along: We are all in this together, and we are all better off when people have a place to call home.

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