By Dr. Evan Lyon and Brandi Calvert, MPH
At a time when staying at home has been equated with staying alive, perhaps few Chicagoans face greater peril from the coronavirus crisis than those experiencing homelessness. Then again, probably few people are more accustomed to living in crisis in the first place.
Long before the plague of COVID-19 rampaged across the city, homelessness in Chicago constituted an epidemic unto itself. And for the more than 86,000 city residents mired in its stranglehold, life was already a daily exercise in survival — it just didn’t come accompanied by the outpouring of government aid and the rush to find a cure that has arisen in response to the current pandemic.
In fact, efforts to remedy homelessness in Chicago have languished for precisely the opposite reason: a recurring scarcity of resources. So when the coronavirus buffeted the community, and Chicagoans were urged to stay home to protect their health, those experiencing homelessness were left virtually defenseless.
Indeed, homelessness in all of its configurations, from congregate shelters, to outdoor encampments, to “doubled-up” arrangements where multiple households huddle together under one roof, involves massing people in tight, dense environments that are fundamentally incompatible with the social distancing practices now considered sacrosanct in the fight against the pandemic.
To its credit, the city has recognized this danger. Last month, in announcing plans to provide safer spaces for people experiencing homelessness who are either infected by COVID-19 or at risk of contracting it, Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said, “Stopping the outbreak in Chicago’s homeless population has been one of the most challenging aspects of this response.”
To that end, the city reserved quarantine housing for people experiencing homelessness who are COVID-positive, and for a portion of those who are most vulnerable to the virus. These were important first steps. But subsequent events have demonstrated that it cannot be the last word. Recent news reports have documented a range of challenges impairing the quest to keep people experiencing homelessness safe. Not only have many shelters been compromised by rapidly escalating rates of COVID-19 infections, but due to the need to limit the normal capacity of these facilities to maintain social distancing, some people experiencing homelessness have no access to them in the first place.
Add to that a potentially catastrophic wave of foreclosures and evictions, and the current climate is dreadfully conducive to an escalation in homelessness that begets an escalation in COVID-19 infections.
Fortunately, the city has an immediate, and by some measures unprecedented, opportunity to address these emerging needs. As part of its share of new federal CARES Act coronavirus-relief funding, Chicago will receive millions of dollars in money designated for addressing homelessness.
Our strategy makes two key recommendations:
- Allocate 40% of federal Community Development Block Grant funding to programs that provide assistance with rental, mortgage and utility payments to economically distressed households in danger of losing their homes. This would put some of the city’s skin in the game after Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled an effort last week to convince lenders and landlords to work cooperatively to grant concessions to tenants and homeowners who struggle to make housing payments.
- Promote COVID-19 recovery and long-term housing prospects by designating 75% of federal Emergency Solutions Grants, a fund designated to combat homelessness, to an initiative that would place people who are experiencing homelessness into subsidized private rental units, rather than city-purchased quarantine and isolation spaces. Estimates show that this policy would cost only about one-third of what the city has invested in hotel rooms, and research has proven this model can form an effective “bridge” into permanent, stable housing for those without it.
The two measures won’t require new tax revenues or impinge on the city’s pre-existing budget — complications that are invariably cited during normal times when proposals to combat homelessness are introduced. Instead, they would channel CARES Act funds already coming to the city into programs that yield the biggest bang for the buck.
Moreover, they will allow at least some of the 86,000 Chicagoans experiencing homelessness to shelter safely in place not only for the duration of the pandemic, but possibly for good. As the current crisis has demonstrated in glaring terms, that’s crucial to the health and welfare of the entire city.
Evan Lyon, M.D., a doctor providing health care to people experiencing homelessness, is chief integrated health officer for Heartland Alliance Health.
Brandi Calvert, MPH, is senior director, housing operations, for the Center for Housing and Health, which provides permanent housing with services for people experiencing homelessness.