Can We Get Homelessness Right Post-COVID-19?

Finally we’ve ‘discovered’ people experiencing homelessness. Now what?

Kalamazoo drivers seem to accommodate the duck traffic. Photo Diane Nilan

We need good news in this doom-and-gloom time. Hoping not to jinx it, it looks like the CORVID-19 aid package should become law. That’s a guarded bit of good news.

I’m not going to analyze the pros/cons of this massive aid bill. Nope, I’ll leave that for the policy wonks. As a service to those who care about the well-being of kids experiencing homelessness, check the updates provided by my friends at SchoolHouse Connection. If things evolve as we hope, significant funds will be directed to our nation’s homeless population. That’s the good news.

I want to offer food for thought (since we have time to sit around and think) that might give our nation a much-needed do-over on homelessness. It’s ours to grab and run with it or to screw up even worse.

As Ed Yong astutely lays out in his Atlantic article,

Pandemics can also catalyze social change. People, businesses, and institutions have been remarkably quick to adopt or call for practices that they might once have dragged their heels on, including working from home, conference-calling to accommodate people with disabilities, proper sick leave, and flexible child-care arrangements.

One of the many roads I’ve traveled in my past 15 years at HEAR US Inc.. Photo Diane Nilan

The way my mind works — I look down the road. What happens AFTER we see coronavirus in our rearview mirror. Assuming most of us are alive to move to post-COVID-19 existence, what do we hope for?

LET’S LOOK AT HOMELESSNESS

It was dismazing how the many levels of homelessness seemed to be virtually unknown before the virus hit, and not having a place to social distance or a place to wash hands (or go to the bathroom) became an obvious issue. No prior thought was given to how you could be homeless and sick without making others sick. Incredible effort by sheroes and heroes across the land is going into accommodating our nation’s vast homeless population. We owe those warriors a debt of thanks, and we owe our homeless sisters and brothers a huge apology for neglecting their needs.

We might want to work up some plans to avoid this kind of crisis of our own making in the future. You know, plan ahead.

WHO ARE ALL THESE PEOPLE WITHOUT HOMES?

  • Single adults with health issues. Most ill-informed Americans believe that it’s “just” the scruffy guys on street corners who are homeless. That segment of the population is the minority. They need help. And that’s who HUD has haphazardly concentrated on over the past 3 decades, those they call “chronic” homeless (forget the noun “people”). About 500,000 is what HUD reports to Congress (a severe undercount). Not the most compelling constituency, so they merit little help.
  • Families. What? Families are homeless? Mainstream media have at least started covering this subpopulation. The NYTimes has done some credible reporting of late. If you’ve read or watched (this stereotype-busting short video will get you), you might see this issue differently. Let me assure you, it’s far beyond NYC. You can watch any of my short videos to get a better idea. And to give you an idea of numbers, millions, including more than 1.5 million babies-toddlers.
  • Youth. Jewel just did a virtual concert that raised a cool half-mil for homeless youth — the teens and young adults on their own. Maybe she did it because she once was one of them. We have millions — over 4 million and counting.
  • Single adults not “qualified” as “chronic.” The definition HUD uses to qualify as homeless is so ding-dang narrow that it doesn’t include millions of adults who are homeless.

WHERE DO PEOPLE WITHOUT HOMES LIVE?

Every person without a home doesn’t live on the streets. But too many end up there. Among the other places: campgrounds (sanctioned and not), the woods, abandoned buildings, RVs, boats, motels/hotels, doubled up (or worse) with people they know or don’t know, shelters, and any combination of the above. (Apologies for the incomplete listing.)

You can read any of my Medium blogs to learn more.

But I want to take us to post-COVID-19.

It’s not coming soon, and that might be a good thing inasmuch as we need time to make better plans for the swath of our nation’s population that has for decades been, um, forgotten. You know — those easy to overlook — those stuck in poverty who may/may not have health issues, low-wage work force (those stocking grocery shelves, driving cabs, cleaning up our messes, harvesting our crops, etc.), kids coming out of foster care without a tool in their toolbox to survive, families who’ve experienced more trauma and violence than we want to know, adults struggling with a host of issues that make them pariahs in our (not so) pristine world, the disenfranchised elderly, and anyone who lacks a support network. Homelessness is complicated, and my recent Medium post described some of the complications.

BASIC INGREDIENTS OF A POST-COVID LESS-HOMELESS WORLD:

  • Change the way we define homelessness, a campaign I’ve been involved with for years, so we don’t exclude millions who have no homes.
  • Offer multiple housing solutions — not one-size-fits-all — for people of all income-challenged levels.
  • Accommodate those in the work world who want to escape homelessness.
  • Make arrangements for the best interest of kids of all ages.
  • Accept that people will stumble and fall, and don’t penalize them.
  • Make sure every person has access to bathrooms, hygiene, a safe place to rest, health care, nutritional food, mental health services, etc.
  • Protect access to education for students of all ages. Consider their needs for tech access, year-round living arrangements, transportation, and childcare, to name a few.
  • Build a strong safety net so those on the edge don’t fall into homelessness. (Eviction prevention, debt forgiveness, utility assistance, legal help, etc.)
  • Establish basic livable levels of income, access to health care, transportation options, quality child care, healthy and affordable nutrition.
  • Provide for the elderly and infirm in a humane manner.

This is a start on how to reshape our nation to eradicate the social injustice that has created a hellish existence for millions, and for all of us. Since we’ve seen trillions of our dollars be pulled out to stop our nation’s hemorrhaging, the money isn’t the issue. It’s the will.

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 15 yrs. on US backroads.

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