Poverty and Homelessness During the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Samel Leparan

COVID-19 hit indigenous people and immigrants in San Francisco especially hard, leaving many in poverty and homelessness. Poor and homeless people were especially affected by the many restrictions and safety regulations that were enforced. 

Kate had just traveled to America with a round-trip ticket to visit her uncle James in San Francisco. James had promised to help her get documents and admission to an American university. As a young girl from a humble home and a poverty-stricken family, she had worked as a maid to get her through school, so when opportunity knocked at her door she believed that her fortunes had turned and smiled at her. She traveled to America with the help of many friends, the church, and her uncle.  

Her move was something many in her home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, could only dream of. But just two days after she arrived, all hell broke loose. There had been a coronavirus outbreak in the country. She was sure the outbreak would be over in time for her to catch her flight home, but this was not the case. Strict measures were enforced by the government to try and reduce the spread of the coronavirus. This meant that she had to stay put and wait for further instructions from the government. 

Her uncle James would not follow the instructions, because he had to work and find money for rent and food, despite how risky it was for him to be going out during the lockdown period. He was among the first of many who were laid off immediately. 

Kate says her uncle used to leave the house at night, and that he would come back with some groceries. But before too long he fell ill, complaining of chest pains, fever, difficulty breathing, joint pains and blurred vision. His symptoms got worse with time. By now her departure day had passed and he was the only one who could help her get back home when the regulations were relaxed. But her uncle’s health deteriorated quickly and he was admitted to a hospital. It was so difficult to visit him because she was on an expired visa; the only way she knew to get any information about her uncle was through her uncle’s friend whom she only knew by a nickname, Ras. 

After a week, Ras stopped coming to inform her about her uncle, and she soon learned he had been arrested for possession of hard drugs. Kate asked her neighbor to check in on her uncle, but she came back with disturbing stories about how African-American people were being treated in the hospital. She said that when you got to the hospital it was so difficult to see your loved one. There were so many rules in place and the only ones allowed in with patients were the doctors and the nurses on duty. She added that once a new patient was brought in, ventilators were taken from existing patients to help stabilize the new patients. All this remained rumor, because she never got an opportunity to see her uncle again. She tried communicating with him from home but she never got any form of reply.

Eventually she was evicted from the house where she had been living. At first she found a few places where she could sleep on the sofas, but when it became clear she wasn’t able to contribute to the rent, she was abandoned. She began sleeping in the corridors and borrowing food to eat. Weeks passed by but she never gave up. She always went back to where she used to live with her uncle to see if he had returned, but she only saw an empty house until it was occupied with a new tenant. She lost her passport in the process of being evicted and she knew no one besides her uncle. She now believes her uncle is dead, and she has no way to prove otherwise.  

Kate was left to fend for herself in the streets, new in the country, city and with no friends or relatives. While she was lucky not to get infected by COVID, it nevertheless left her in misery and hopelessness. Now she is homeless, and she would do anything to get back to her home in Kinshasa. She got involved with some people who promised to help her, but instead got her into sex work and drugs, which she is now addicted to. 

As Kate narrated this story to me a few days ago, she was in tears about having to spend years on the streets with no proper shelter, food, or money, no known contacts to call at home, and not even a passport to get help from anyone. She has only her home country ID, which she hopes will help her get help from her embassy, but because of her addiction no one will believe her story. 

Kate’s experience is a reflection of many other street poor and homeless folks who were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Her story tells us how some institutions try to help while others are so hard to access. For Kate, COVID-19 brought her poverty and homelessness—others lost jobs, turned to selling drugs for survival, and experienced criminalization, addiction, institutionalization, and rejection from their homes and livelihoods. I hope this article can help the relevant authorities broaden their scope in helping those that were affected by COVID-19. Kindly stretch out your hand to help—it will positively affect many whose stories have yet to be told.