A black and white photo of a homeless encampment. Piles of blankets with people under them lie on the side of the street under a bridge.
Photo Courtesy of Pixabay.

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“I

t’s a time bomb: 23 die as virus hits packed homeless shelters.” 

“Positive cases of COVID-19 at San Francisco homeless shelter grow to more than 90.” 

“One in three among Boston homeless test positive for coronavirus.” 

The now iconic picture [taken by photographer Tod Seelie] of dozens of people experiencing homelessness sleeping in a Las Vegas parking lot while thousands of empty hotel rooms sit in the background. 

These are just some of the many headlines and images this month in the United States. There will be more. The global respiratory disease known as COVID-19 is hitting American’s homeless population, and it’s hitting it hard. 

Unfortunately, it’s not a surprise. There is no place for people experiencing homelessness to shelter in place and emergency shelters aren’t the most ideal setting to fight against a global pandemic. It’s a harsh reality for more than 500,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night. 

We shouldn’t be surprised. The issue of homelessness and housing in America has been a tinderbox waiting to catch fire for generations. We know that housing specifically has been used as a weapon against people of color in America for centuries. To add insult to injury, the massive disinvestment in housing for America’s poor during the past 40 years, the lack of mental and physical healthcare, ongoing racial discrimination and most of all, the lack of leadership at a federal level, has led us to the situation we find ourselves in today. 

It’s time for change. We must not forget the one time America did attempt to create a social safety net for all its citizens during the Great Depression — creating national jobs and housing programs — it did so in response to both market forces and social unrest. The federal government didn’t just wake up one day and say “we want to help the poor.” With the collective circumstances we find ourselves in today, we have a similar opportunity for much different reasons. 

There’s no question the coronavirus pandemic is a nightmare for people on the streets and the poor, among others. The nightmare is far from over. In fact, it’s just begun. Without bold action, an entire new generation of people will be thrown into poverty and homelessness without the necessary support and safety nets put in place. 

The National Low Income Housing Coalition, and other national leaders, including the International Network of Street Papers North America, is calling for the following in the short-term. 

  • Emergency funding of $11.5 billion to minimize the number of people who live in homeless encampments and congregate shelters, and identify alternative space, including hotels, for isolation and self-quarantine, as well as funding for short-term rental assistance and housing stabilization services. Funds should also be used to provide medical respite care, outreach and street medicine for people experiencing homelessness. 
  • A national, uniform moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. Congress should implement a uniform policy that assures that renters and homeowners will not lose their homes during a pandemic. A lot of tenants will be responsible for paying back unpaid rent. The law should prohibit rent arrears – accumulated during the period covered by the moratorium – from forming the basis of an eviction. 
  • Emergency rental assistance and eviction prevention of $100 billion. A moratorium on evictions, on its own, is not enough. Congress must also provide tens of billions of dollars in rental assistance to avoid creating a financial cliff individuals and families will fall off when eviction moratoria are lifted. 
  • Emergency funds for already existing affordable housing in both rural and urban environments, including tribal lands. Providing resources for already existing affordable housing efforts is critical in maintaining people’s housing during the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • Access to legal services and housing counseling. Resources for legal services are needed to protect tenants from unlawful evictions that may occur after any moratoriums are lifted, or if moratoriums are not put into effect. Housing counseling can help renters and homeowners remain stably housed during and after the coronavirus outbreak. 
  • Moratorium on sweeps of homeless encampments. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise localities to not sweep homeless encampments or force people to relocate during the pandemic if there are no alternative housing options available to them. Federal resources should be tied to a requirement that states and local communities institute a moratorium on homeless encampment sweeps. 

Find out more and take action at the National Low Income Housing Coalition website here. 

It’s also important to remember there was a housing crisis in America before the pandemic. Long-term, the United States must move to create a new housing strategy that provides massive ongoing investments in supporting the production of millions of new housing units, rent assistance for our most vulnerable citizens, and protections for renters and homeowners nationwide. 

The reality is, for millions of people out of work and facing housing instability, surviving the pandemic will only be the first hurdle in the long road that lies ahead. We have the opportunity to do much more. We have the chance to create a national housing justice movement that addresses both systemic racism and the need to provide a safe place to call home for all our citizens. There’s no better time than the present. 

Israel Bayer is director of INSP North America.