The Impact of COVID-19 Restrictions on Homeless

By Cynthia Yeldell Anderson

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On and off for the past seven years, Keith Hardiman has made his living selling the homeless magazine Streetwise at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Lake Street in downtown Chicago. He uses most of the money he earns to pay the $35-per-day rent at the hotel room where he lives. But his income of $400-$500 a week disappeared overnight when Illinois mandated stay-at-home orders and Streetwise was forced to go digital. Though customers are mostly nonexistent and the magazine is no-longer printed, Hardiman puts his own health at risk and continues to go to his intersection daily to earn money selling old printed editions of Streetwise.

“I pay rent by the day. I can’t stay home, that means I’m out on the street,” says Hardiman, who at 58, is considered at high risk for COVID-19 because of his high blood pressure. “I take one day at a time. If I have to leave the hotel for a day or two, then come back when I get the money, that’s what I have to do.”

This is the life of struggling with homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic. For many African Americans battling to overcome homelessness, new restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 are making efforts to find stable work, meals and housing harder than ever before.

Across the country, many homeless shelters have stopped taking new residents and feeding programs have been forced to scale back their meal services or completely shut down.Community advocates say the result is a shortage of food and more people sleeping on the streets. That hits particularly hard in the Black community, which despite making up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, accounts for 40 percent of the nation's homeless population, according to the 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR), produced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.


The National Health Care for the Homeless Council, based in Nashville, is receiving reports from shelters across the country that they are hunkering down only with the list of clients they are currently serving. No new residents are allowed in and current residents are sheltering in place. In cities from Boston to Atlanta to San Francisco, there are stories of need and desperation.

Rosie’s Place, a Boston women’s shelter with 20 beds, has extended its usual three-week stay “indefinitely” for the safety and protection of the residents, says Michele Chausse, director of communications. For women who can’t stay overnight, Rosie’s Place offers a day shelter where showers and meals are provided to about 200 women, many of whom are African American or Haitian.

“A lot of these women are staying on the street or are staying in shelters where they don’t feel safe,” Chausse says.

The Salvation Army’s Merkle Center of Hope in Shreveport, La., which provides emergency shelter and temporary housing, is operating at about 60 to 70 percent of its maximum capacity, says Co-Commanding Officer Lt. Jamal Ellis. The reduced capacity allows the center to maintain social distancing for its current residents, in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) aimed at reducing the spread of the coronavirus. However, it means some of the most vulnerable people in the community are unsheltered—sleeping on the streets, in tents or in encampments.

“With us not taking in new people, yes, we’ve had to turn people away, but our goal is not to turn anyone away empty-handed with no hope,” says Ellis, adding that the Salvation Army can offer food, clothing or counseling services to people whom the shelter can’t accommodate. “If it were a regular situation we would try to give a referral to another organization, but we know that most other organizations are closed, so we try to offer whatever we can from right here in the Salvation Army.”

For shelter residents such as Laquitah Patton, a 34-year-old mother of three, sheltering in place means she’s no longer able to go out and look for work. “I was living out in Benton, La., with my grandmother; once she passed it left me and my kids not having anywhere to go, so we were homeless,” Patton says. “Before this crisis, (Merkle Center) offered me some housing, they offered me day care, they offered me jobs, but right before I could get into any of that the COVID-19 struck and it stopped everything .” Patton couldn't take advantage of any of the services because of the shelter in placer orders.


There is also, of course, the sudden scarcity of food as soup kitchens, church feeding programs and even school lunch programs shut down. Miriam’s Kitchen, which serves meals to the homeless community in Washington, D.C., committed to staying open during the pandemic, but it has modified both the way meals are served and the meals themselves. Meals are now served as box lunches in an outdoor space. Salads and dairy items are no longer part of the menu.Executive Chef Cherly Bell, says: “We’re expecting that we may be having some challenges obtaining food the longer this goes on. I do think we will have to get creative the longer this continues.”

In San Francisco, Theo Ellington, director of homeless initiatives and community development for the Salvation Army’s Golden State Division, says “food security is probably the No. 1 issue alongside homelessness that dovetails the COVID-19 crisis.”

Ellington oversees a unique new partnership between the city of San Francisco and the Salvation Army aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus. He and his team take meals to about 50 San Francisco-area homeless encampments daily. The team takes two meals a day to 784 people so they won’t have to leave the encampments to find food.

Valencia Gunder runs feeding programs in both Atlanta and Miami. She provides meals to the unsheltered population through her organization, The Smile Trust. She’s partnering with another nonprofit serving meals Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in Southwest Atlanta where she says “new tent cities are popping up.”

“I try not to ask a lot of questions, but we get comments like, ‘I haven’t eaten since the last time I saw you,’” says Gunder. “It’s disheartening. These are metropolitan cities with multi-billion dollar budgets. It’s no reason the unsheltered should not be getting what they need in the time of a global pandemic. There are other volunteers out here feeding, but even with all of our joint efforts, it’s not enough.”


Bobby Watts, CEO of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, says people who are homeless are generally in poorer health because of the rigors of homelessness such as chronic sleep deprivation and the stress of living in shelters and other congregant settings. African Americans in particular are more likely to have pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes, asthma and hypertension.

In the context of COVID-19, the CDC says risks associated with sleeping outdoors in an encampment setting are different from the risk of staying indoors in a congregate setting such as a shelter. While both settings have a risk of community spread, sleeping outdoors also brings risk associated with poor hygiene because of a lack of clean water and sanitation facilities.

“It’s hard to stay sheltered at home if you don’t have a home,” Watts said. “It’s hard to practice social distancing when you don’t have much control over your space in a shelter or even if you have to share a tent. The CDC’s No. 1 recommendation is to wash your hands with water and soap. If you don’t have access to water in an encampment, how can you do that?”

Cities such as Berkeley, Calif., and Birmingham, Ala., have added handwashing stations for the homeless, but in many other cities around the country it’s community organizations that have stepped up.

In Miami, Dr. Armen Henderson, a doctor who specializes in internal medicine, volunteers with a coalition of organizations called the Community Emergency Operations Center, and has been in a public battle with the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, which receives public funds to end homelessness.

The Community Emergency Operations Center has sponsored a shower for people living on the streets of Miami and also provided tents, water, food and toiletries, Henderson says.“In the absence of swift action by the county, city and the trust, we had to move into action ourselves to try to do their job,” Henderson says.

Henderson made national headlines in April when he was handcuffed in front of his home while loading tents and other supplies for Miami’s homeless residents into his car. He’s used the publicity to advocate for testing and bring attention to lack of provisions for people living on the streets of Miami.“The things that we saw were that people didn’t have masks that lived unsheltered, they didn’t have access to water, and they didn’t have access to food or testing,” Henderson says.

Henderson has been on the ground testing members of Miami’s unsheltered population for COVID-19. He’s driven symptomatic people to the hospital and sometimes called an ambulance to pick them up.“I got a lot of pushback about why I was testing in general,” says Henderson, who believes people living on the streets, in jails and in congregant settings should be tested for COVID-19. “This is the most vulnerable population in the epicenter, and so these individuals should be randomly tested to figure out how much the virus has spread.”


In Chicago, Streetwise had to pivot its operations to help its vendors — most of whom are unstably housed like Hardiman — get through the COVID-19 pandemic.Executive Director Julie Youngguist says the magazine, which has a mission to empower people who have experienced homelessness, has been providing fresh meals to go, pantry items, hygiene items and cash assistance to its vendors to help support them through these tough times.

Hardiman says that support has helped him keep a roof over his head during the pandemic as street vendors have mostly disappeared.“I do a lot of praying. I do a little struggling,” Hardiman says. “Streetwise has helped me tremendously. I've been able to get by.”

Streetwise has launched an online fundraising campaign to support vendors. At the intersection where Hardiman usually sells magazines, Streetwise hung a poster urging supporters to purchase the digital version of the magazine online. The poster features a photo of Hardiman with the caption “I’m Still Here.”

Additional reporting by Kalyn Womack in Washington, DC.

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