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Coronavirus: Huge risk for homeless in D.C.

March 21, 2020

People without a home to self-quarantine in and without regular access to sanitation are likelier to contract the coronavirus. As cases hit New York City shelters, advocates in D.C. are warning about the city’s homeless.

USA: Ausgangsperre in Kalifornien
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Gomes

We have all heard what to do to minimize the risk of getting coronavirus: Wash your hands regularly, stay at home if possible, stay away from large crowds and keep a safe distance. But what if your home is a tent without running water? Or if you can only get a warm meal and a roof over your head in a shelter where the beds are packed together in cramped quarters? This is the difficult reality facing homeless people.  

In 2019, the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area had roughly 9,800 homeless residents, according to a study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The number fluctuates greatly and cannot be pinned down exactly. One thing is certain, however: a large number of people without a roof over their heads are facing even greater challenges since the coronavirus outbreak.

Covid-19: US caught off guard?

The US organization National Alliance to End Homelessness states on their website that "individuals experiencing homelessness include many older adults, often with compounding disabilities, who reside in large congregate facilities or in unsheltered locations with poor access to sanitation." The coronavirus entry continues:  "Their age, poor health, disability, and living conditions make them highly vulnerable to illness."

Advice for the homeless via telephone

Amber Harding is an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, where homeless persons, or those threatened with homelessness, can go for help. Her voice gets animated when the conversation turns to the problems her clients are now facing. "I'm sorry," she says on the phone, "you can tell that I work from home now, so I talk a lot when somebody asks me about this."

Since Friday, the Washington Legal Clinic has been operating on a home office only basis. Their lawyers take turns with the emergency shift that is available round the clock, whilst all other general calls are routed to the appropriate legal expert for the issue. 

"We usually meet people where they are at, in homeless shelters or at day programs," Harding says. "But those programs have been canceled and the shelters are only open to people who must be there." In addition to their hotline, the lawyers also call former clients to see if they can help in any way during this difficult time. But some things have gotten easier during the coronavirus crisis as well.

Less bureaucracy in times of crisis 

Families who seek refuge in an emergency homeless shelter set up especially for them usually have to deal with a lot of red tape. Before they can get a place, they have to present ID, proof of residency in the state where they're seeking shelter, a list of their places of residence for the last two years and much more — and are then still often wrongly refused, Harding explains.

But currently, these emergency family shelters are doing phone intakes, with no documents required. "The question I have now is: Why are you not doing this all the time?"

Washington, D.C. has adopted some measures to prevent more people from losing their homes in the coronavirus crisis. One of the biggest steps is a moratorium on evictions. No one can be thrown out into the street during the public health emergency, decreed by Mayor Muriel Bowser.

But that's not enough, experts say. The rents of people receiving state assistance should also be paid. "As things stand, the landlord can evict families for unpaid rent as soon as the health emergency is lifted," says Harding. "And because many people are losing their income right now, we'll see a huge increase in the number of homeless families once the emergency is lifted."

The fight against coronavirus

One person could 'spread it to everyone in the shelter'

In New York City, the coronavirus has reached the homeless shelters. As of Thursday, there are seven cases in different shelters. 

Harding is concerned about the virus spreading in Washington's facilities as well. "Some of the shelters here have bunk beds, people share living quarters and bathrooms, and there's lower [standards of] cleanliness." 

She complains that there's not enough testing in the U.S. and says that everyone in a high-risk group like the older homeless with pre-existing conditions should be tested. "If we had a good testing system, we could isolate those who have the virus immediately," says Harding. 

"But when someone gets a cough, once that person is hospitalized and tests positive, they'll have already spread it to everyone in the shelter." That's Harding's biggest concern for the coming weeks: "People dying in communal shelters."

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker