by Johanna Elattar
As I stand in line at the supermarket, there are two women ahead of me. They’re talking about the pandemic. The two women are discussing the end of the emergency food stamps that were given to everyone who’s on public assistance during quarantine, and for several months after. Now, communities are lifting requirements to wear masks in most public places, and social distancing has become a thing of the recent past.
The women’s conversation makes me think about the homeless couple that I often see outside of the Walmart, and the many others like them living in the streets across America. COVID-19 may seem like it’s no longer a danger, but for many of the homeless, it is, and will continue to have a lasting impact. For this marginalized population, COVID-19 remains a threat in so many ways.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, its impact on vulnerable communities remains a pressing concern. Among these communities, the homeless population in America has been hit particularly hard. Despite efforts to mitigate the effects of the virus, the homeless continue to face numerous challenges.
The homeless population is highly susceptible to the health risks posed by COVID-19, says Michael Rodriguez, an expert in homelessness and public health.”The homeless face an increased risk of contracting and spreading the virus due to living conditions that often lack access to clean water, handwashing facilities, and safe shelter,” says Rodriguez. “These factors contribute to the spread of infectious diseases within this population.”
While vaccination efforts have made significant progress across the country, disparities in vaccination rates between the general and homeless populations persist: Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that almost 70% of U.S. residents completed a primary series of vaccinations, compared to just with up to fewer than half of those who report being homeless. Sarah Collins, a nurse practitioner providing health care to the homeless, says, “Limited vaccine availability, difficulties in scheduling appointments, and vaccine hesitancy are significant barriers that prevent many homeless individuals from receiving protection against COVID-19.”
Homeless shelters across America have grappled with overcrowding, impeding effective social distancing and putting individuals at greater risk. John Anderson, a shelter coordinator, elaborates, “The pandemic has strained our resources and capacity, forcing us to reduce the number of available beds to maintain distancing guidelines. This has resulted in increased street homelessness, exposing vulnerable individuals to additional health and safety risks.”
The pandemic has exacerbated existing mental health challenges among the homeless. “Isolation, fear, and uncertainty have significantly impacted the mental health of homeless individuals,” says Jennifer Ramirez, a social worker specializing in homelessness. “The closure of drop-in centers, limited access to counseling services, and disrupted routines have made it even more challenging for this population to access the support they desperately need.”
The economic fallout from the pandemic has compounded the challenges faced by the homeless, straining access to essential support services. Robert Thompson, a director of a homeless outreach organization, emphasizes, “Job losses, evictions, and limited financial aid have resulted in an influx of newly homeless individuals seeking assistance. However, resource constraints and overwhelmed service providers have created barriers to accessing critical support services.”
COVID-19 has further highlighted existing racial disparities within the homeless population. Dr. Maya Patel, a researcher focusing on health disparities, points out, “Communities of color are disproportionately affected by homelessness and COVID-19. Systemic inequities, including limited access to health care, housing discrimination, and poverty, contribute to higher infection rates and poorer health outcomes among minority homeless individuals.”
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to cast a long shadow over the homeless population in America and throw further obstacles in their path towards stability. It is imperative for policymakers, community organizations, and individuals to prioritize the needs of this vulnerable group, ensuring equitable access to health care, vaccinations, safe shelter, and support services.
As the human race navigates the ongoing recovery, addressing the impact of COVID-19 on the homeless must remain a central focus. By fostering collaboration and implementing targeted strategies, we can strive towards a more inclusive and compassionate society, where the homeless are not left behind in our collective efforts to overcome this unprecedented crisis.