In the midst of the pandemic, time is running out for persons experiencing homelessness. Our leaders at the State, County, and City levels must take bold and comprehensive action now. Without it, death will be the result for many of our neighbors without a home.
Governor Walz’s order Directing Minnesotans to Stay at Home is simple: Shelter at home. We are asked to stay at home for the benefit of one another – especially for those who are elderly or have an underlying health condition.
What if you didn’t have a home with a front door and a key? What if you went to work every day but you still couldn’t afford an apartment so you lived in your car at a rest stop? What if you were in your late fifties, diagnosed with COPD and didn’t have a place to plug in your nebulizer equipment because you slept in a tent? What if “under the bridge” was your address and you were diagnosed with lupus and lung cancer and used a colostomy bag? What then?
Governor Walz, following CDC guidance, specified “encampments should not be subject to sweeps or disbandment by state or local governments, as such sweeps or disbandment increase the potential risk and spread of COVID-19.” It says folks on the street can’t be chased out of one location after another so they can do their best to stay in place. So they aren’t infected with COVID-19 or passing it to others after being forced to move around. So they can “stay at home” in their tent if they are sick with any symptoms other than those serious enough to require hospitalization.
The need is great. You may not realize it because constant displacement keeps the unsheltered invisible, but facts show a need for more than a response of just leaving people alone. The July 2019 Point in Time Count, a census of all unsheltered individuals in Hennepin County, found 723 people living in places unfit for human habitation. That is, on the street, sleeping in cars, living under bridges, staying on transit, and any number of inhumane places.
Persons experiencing homelessness are at an excessively high level of risk to the ravages of COVID-19 due to age and underlying medical conditions, and they are at a greatly diminished capacity to avoid contracting the virus and being able to take care of themselves once they do. And those living outside will increase: The transit system, used as shelter of last resort, is no longer available; jails are reducing their numbers; and a reduction in shelter capacity to allow for social distancing along with a general fear of residing in a congregate setting, will all contribute. If large-scale infections shutter our larger shelters, many more will opt to self-isolate outside.
Too much time has passed already. The current response is too passive and will not prevent the suffering that will occur unless more is done. We need our elected officials to lead a multi-level crisis response. The State has money available; cities and counties can apply to create spaces for those experiencing homelessness. We need direction and leadership including:
- A comprehensive plan from the County and City to secure single dwelling units, such as hotels, for unsheltered and sheltered individuals.
- Designated locations with hygiene services, potable water, toilets, and basic services, such as trash removal, for individuals living in tents or vehicles that allow for CDC spacing recommendations.
- Full enforcement of the ban on displacement and sweeps by law enforcement along with clearly defined locations where individuals are not allowed to shelter to provide predictability.
- Personal Protective Equipment for all outreach workers and for those living outside along with needed temporary shelters such as tents.
- All of the above adhering to low-barrier access, the principles of harm reduction, and not using low-level criminal activity (i.e. toileting outside when there is no toilet) as carve-outs against the ban.
We are in crisis response mode. We must act to reduce the harm caused by previous inaction; otherwise, predictable deaths will be traced directly to a failure to take the clear and difficult actions we need our elected officials to take – today.
John Tribbett, Street Outreach Manager
St. Stephen’s Human Services