“Housing has become the frontline defense against the coronavirus. Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation,” said Leilani Farha, U.N. special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing.
People living in congregate settings are at greater risk for exposure to COVID-19. The Department of Public Health has reported this, with clusters of COVID-19 cases in jails, nursing homes, and behavioral health facilities. Additionally, due to structural issues, homeless individuals have higher rates of chronic conditions like heart disease, HIV, and diabetes. The city must act to protect this vulnerable population.
So far, the city’s response has been lackluster. March 23 was simultaneously the first day of Mayor Jim Kenney’s “stay-at-home” order, as well as the scheduled eviction of about 60 individuals from under the Convention Center tunnels. Even with shelter concerns over the ability to comply with social distancing recommendations, a positive test for one resident three days prior at a shelter nearby and CDC guidance that recommended suspending encampment evictions, the city went forward. Homeless advocates witnessed the city forcibly remove the residents without assurances of permanent housing.
Our question remains for the city and state: How do you “stay at home” when you have no house or shelter?
Experts support using all means to ensure that unhoused persons remain safe during the pandemic. The United Nations supports using all vacant and abandoned housing and hotel and motel rooms to house individuals. The National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness recommends housing people in hotels and motels to prevent the spread of COVID-19, describing large-scale shelters as a recipe for the rapid spread of disease.
Several jurisdictions acted quickly to protect its homeless population. By March 26, the city of New Orleans was attempting to get as many of its homeless residents into hotels, recognizing that people experiencing homelessness are three times more likely to die from COVID-19. By March 28, the city of Oakland, Calif., was moving its elderly and disabled persons into local hotels. On March 30, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont took the bold step to require that shelters provide enough space for people to comply with CDC social distancing guidelines. In Maryland, thinking creatively, nonprofits gathered together to house 50 individuals at a summer camp site, where they could provide services for the pandemic’s duration.
Every second and day counts, and it is unclear what the city or state has planned. Thus far, there has been no mention of a site designated for unhoused individuals, only a soft-launch of a quarantine site at the Holiday Inn Express, but these beds are reserved for those who have already tested positive.
The city of Philadelphia must think creatively and act fast before we have a widespread outbreak among the shelter and unhoused community. The city must, with all haste, provide individual housing units. To that end, the city should make use of its empty school buildings, college dormitories, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, and use any other city-owned property.
Where we fall short in that effort, the city will need to designate sanctioned encampments to accommodate residents who would rather isolate outdoors, allowing service providers to concentrate their efforts and to facilitate basic amenities such as tents, hand-washing stations, and sanitation.
The challenges are many, ranging from mental health to addiction to staff and budgets, but the circumstances demand that we rise to the occasion. We must take bold steps to minimize this virus’s spread that threatens to snuff out so many lives if we fail to take decisive action. Times like these demand true leadership from Mayor Kenney and Gov. Tom Wolf. Let us pray that we are fortunate enough to find it.
Sterling Johnson is an organizer of Black and Brown Workers Cooperative and a board member of Angels in Motion. Wiley Cunningham is a housing and homelessness activist.