‘I am Lucky to be Alive’: Poverty and Homelessness in the Wake of the Pandemic

by Anonymous

When COVID-19 hit San Francisco, it made matters worse for all of us struggling to live on the streets. The cold, rainy nights with flimsy shelters, no balanced diet, no proper clothing and no money to help even in acquiring the cheapest commodities in the convenience stores are harder than one might imagine.

COVID made the streets so unbearable. At first no one knew what it was. We thought it was a mere flu, transmitted through air just like a cold, and that it would fade away in time. But this did not happen. Things got worse fast, and many of the neighborhoods started to shift. Those who were lucky were taken to hospitals, but some succumbed to the virus, in part because of their hard circumstances. There was confusion and fear among homeless communities, as we were told to try to avoid mingling, but this really wasn’t possible, especially given that most of us share tents and small food portions we manage to get. Because of these circumstances, the pandemic spread fast. 

Many homeless people already have weakened immune systems, and as a result most were affected, knowingly or unknowingly. We ran away and tried to hide from police and medics, whom we thought had come to collect us and take us to a precinct, as fear spread among us with little knowledge of what was really happening. It was so difficult to distinguish help from harm. By the time most of us understood that it was COVID-19, many of our friends had moved to new cities, died or isolated themselves. In addition, new homeless people joined our numbers as a result of loss of jobs, especially when the lockdown was implemented.  

Not everyone was infected the same way by the virus, and some people had a very mild experience. But this made it easier to spread the disease unknowingly. By the time you get really sick, you have already spread the virus on the streets. It did not take long before I became infected by a neighbor who never knew they were infected, too. 

I am lucky to be alive today.

I suffered a lot of chest pain, a sore throat, weak joints, loss of taste and smell, and blurred vision. I was so sick, but most of us who are undocumented would not risk being taken to a hospital for fear that we would be discovered. I had to survive the pain and torture of COVID-19 through hope. My friends made a lot of concoctions to ease the sickness. They introduced me to more drugs like cocaine, spirits and some lemon drinks that were supposed to help treat the flu. It worked in some instances, but others who were severely affected died. 

But we had to survive. We had no relatives, no documentation, and very few friends to count on while living on the streets. Helping one another was a matter of do or die. In some instances we would watch at a distance as the bodies of our deceased neighbors were collected from different places—some from their tents, others from under bridges.  

When I regained some strength after my infection, I saw many new faces on the streets. I had to find new customers for supplies after my debt had grown while I was sick and unable to supply my daily package of drugs. 

At the same time, the pandemic also saw increased drug use and drug-related illnesses, and in some instances people who had been infected developed chronic illnesses like heart problems, diabetes and cancer. For us experiencing homelessness, I saw the medical services try their level best to save lives, but for those of us without documentation it was a risky affair. 

I still struggle with pain from my COVID experience. My body’s general functions are limited, and I depend on medication for the pain.  Besides, I have to keep selling to pay my ever-swelling debts while drug kingpins and territory conflicts make it more difficult to hit the set targets. 

Life has become too hard. More urgent help is needed for unemployed, undocumented homeless and poverty-stricken families. COVID-19 has really made the streets even more risky, and the government and non-governmental entities should come to our aid as soon as possible.