Outreach Involving the Unhoused During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought great distress to everyone around the world. However, not all populations have been impacted equally. According to the CDC, it is especially difficult to track the amount of COVID cases among the unhoused population due to a lack of access to testing or medical assistance if they are not in a homeless shelter. 

Upon entry to a homeless service site, people are not required to be negative for COVID-19, unless local or state authorities mandate it. It is every individual’s responsibility to take added precautions not to get infected, especially those who are most susceptible to the virus. The unhoused population often consists of older adults and those with disabilities or underlying medical conditions, like chronic kidney disease and diabetes. As stated by the CDC, the transmission risk is higher in this population as compared to the general public with more exposure to the virus among unhoused people without sanitation products, masks, or other personal protective equipment.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness focuses on “guidance around three main areas: involving Continuums of Care (CoCs) in planning, funding for homeless services providers, and how to stay informed of federal guidance and other resources.” The Alliance can play a key role in combating COVID-19 spread in the unhoused population. This organization is great for those with internet access, but very few people experiencing homelessness have that luxury.

With the vulnerability this group of people already experiences, limited access to information is a critical issue all on its own. Information can become more accessible at a community-based level, so that outreach services can be expanded along with campaigns. For example, the City of Berkeley can gather volunteers to post flyers with clear language around encampments about the resources available to support Berkeley’s unhoused residents. 

The most effective way to help out the unhoused community now is at a more localized level through state and local leaders. Ian Buddy works in the unhoused community in Berkeley. When asked about what can be done as a member of the general public, he said, “As part of Berkeley CopWatch, we do not only police the police, but we go around the streets with brown bags we prepare with COVID-19 essentials, such as gloves, hand sanitizer, masks, socks, and feminine products. Anyone can get together and do the same. Just make sure to keep your distance and that you catch the unhoused at a good moment.” CopWatch demonstrates the importance of community members in recognizing and working to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the unhoused population when the local government initiatives are not adequate. 

Displacement through eviction and housing insecurity are becoming a worry for many people who have lost their jobs during these uncertain times. California’s COVID-19 Tenant Relief Act, and local laws, such as Berkeley’s Eviction Moratorium, may not be sufficient because many people are not earning an income yet, and these are only temporary solutions. It is important for housing to be secured and safe shelter to be offered to the unhoused in order to have a grasp on the transmission risk. For the near future, all homeless service sites must do better and take additional precautions when admitting people with a positive COVID-19 viral test.