Coronavirus Crisis Shows the Full Brutality of the System in Token Gestures for the Homeless
Homeless communities are in an incredibly vulnerable position during the Coronavirus pandemic. They are not only at risk from the spread of the virus itself but also from the responses of the government, both local and national.
Homeless communities are highly social environments. Many encampments around the country are home to hundreds of people living in close quarters. Unlike formal residences, these informal settlements lack appropriate access to sanitation services. Running water, toilets, and even soap are not easily accessible to homeless people. Public health officials are calling for social distancing and limited gatherings to slow the spread of the virus, but the reality is that many people are totally unable to do these things. This is all the more true for the homeless.
While the national response to the Coronavirus pandemic has been slow and ineffective, state and local efforts to combat the virus have also been problem-ridden. Such efforts are still far short of the seriousness of the crisis. Governments of the SF Bay Area have created some local ordinances to address the crisis. The City of Berkeley has placed some hand washing stations at its largest encampments. Berkeley has even leased land to one homeless community, known as the “Seabreeze” community in West Berkeley, temporarily shielding them from further displacement and earmarking the community for expanded city services. However, these are mere pittances which do next to nothing to protect the homeless from this virus.
In 2018, Leila Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur for Adequate Housing, visited San Francisco and was horrified by the conditions for the homeless. Noting how homeless people are denied basic access to water, toilets, and sanitation she said, “The idea that a government would deny people those services …when they have nowhere else to go suggests a kind of cruelty that is unsurpassed." Last year, an investigation by the New York Times concluded that the conditions for the homeless in Oakland were comparable to or worse than the conditions in the slums of Mexico City. In normal times, the homeless in the U.S. live in extremely precarious conditions, and face constant evictions and harassment from the government.
During this epidemic, the homeless will be particularly hard hit. Studies have found that with the exception of obesity, strokes, and cancer, the homeless are far more likely to suffer from every category of chronic health problem. This includes diseases like diabetes, asthma, and heart disease, which all increase the likelihood of dying from Coronavirus. Given this situation, some minor improvements to sanitation like handwashing stations are unlikely to do much to deter the spread of Coronavirus among the homeless, especially given that recent studies have shown that the virus has a significant ability to spread via airborne transmission.
What’s more, given the history of abuse and oppression heaped on the homeless, it is likely that during this crisis they will be treated as potential vectors for the virus that endanger the rest of the population. Instead of the government working to provide them with housing and medical care, the homeless could be rounded up and treated as a public safety risk. Historically, the U.S. government has left many poor people to die during disasters. For example, during Hurricane Katrina, thousands of poor, most black residents of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward were left to fend for themselves while the government focused evacuation and relief efforts on wealthy communities. When the government finally did offer assistance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) housed around 30,0000 people in the Superdome, a sports stadium without proper plumbing, food, or supplies. During Hurricane Maria thousands of people in Puerto Rico died in part due to government negligence.
Residents in one of Oakland's largest encampments are well aware of this disturbing possibility. When asked how they felt about the situation, one resident of this encampment said, “they [local officials] have told us nothing, they could come and put us in FEMA camps.” This fear reflects the experiences of many homeless people, who already regularly have to deal with violent assaults, overcrowding, and poor health conditions in the existing shelter system. It’s not unreasonable to assume that during a crisis, they would be treated even worse by a system that already considers them disposable.
In the current crisis we can see the brutal way the state and national authorities treat people in general. A recent case where this came out was the management of a Coronavirus outbreak on the Grand Princess cruise liner. The cruise ship was off the coast of San Francisco, en-route from Mexico to the U.S., when it reported probable cases of Covid-19 onboard. The boat was then in limbo for several days, while president Trump worried about whether letting the passengers debark from the ship would raise the U.S. number of Coronavirus cases and make him look bad. Eventually he agreed to let the passengers get off in Oakland, but at that point the virus had been spreading on the ship for days and days, certainly infecting more of the passengers and the crew.
Almost 3000 people disembarked from the vessel over three days, and the US residents aboard were shuttled to nearby military bases to be quarantined. People in this situation were given little information on how long they will be detained, and many reported dwindling food in the days leading up to their disembarking the vessel.
Negligent and authoritarian responses like this will only become more common as the situation intensifies. Furthermore, state and federal agencies are under more pressure to “do more.” Homeless people are some of the most vulnerable in our society. Both authoritarian crackdowns and a lack of action to protect the homeless will impact them even more. Given the response we have seen to Coronavirus so far, it seems likely that the state will mismanage this situation as well, putting many at risk through a mix of negligence and repressive measures.