Homelessness on the Rise Amid Coronavirus Pandemic
Matt Katz: Hey, everyone. I'm Matt Katz filling in for Tanzina Vega. Good to be with you today on The Takeaway. Let's get going. As you know, the COVID-19 crisis has not just been a health crisis, it's been an economic crisis too. As economic crises rise, so does unemployment and homelessness. In the years following the 2008 economic collapse, major cities saw a dramatic rise in the number of people experiencing homelessness.
Now amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we're seeing a rising rate of evictions. According to the Eviction Lab, in 17 cities that they tracked, there have been more than 53,000 evictions since the pandemic began. That results in not just homeless men on the street but children living in shelters, families living in their cars in Walmart parking lots, people crowding into friends or relatives shared rooms.
This period of time since the COVID-19 pandemic hasn't just exacerbated the problem, it's also given rise to a grassroots activism against it. Earlier this year amid the national uprisings for racial justice against police brutality, anti-homelessness activists have been playing an increasingly public role. In cities like Minneapolis and Philadelphia, activists have established homeless encampments and protected them from law enforcement sweeps that displace the camps.
I'm joined now by Will James, reporter with KNKX Public Radio in Washington, and host of The Outsiders Podcast about homelessness in Olympia. Great to have you here, Will.
Will James: Yes, hey, Matt. Thanks.
Matt: We're also on the line with Anna Orso, a reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer, who has been reporting on a homeless encampment/protest in Center City, Philadelphia. Anna, thanks for joining us.
Anna Orso: Hey, thanks for having me.
Matt: You're welcome. Guys, let's start with you, Will. You've been following the homelessness crisis throughout the West Coast. Can you just give us a picture to start of what this crisis look like before the pandemic hit?
Will: Yes. Just take Washington State, for example, we have an estimated 21,000 people who are homeless in Washington State. On the West Coast, what distinguishes the West Coast from the East Coast when it comes to homeless is the proportion of people who are homeless, who are living outside, who are unsheltered, who are living in tents in the woods, and on the sides of highways.
By some accounts, all the numbers on homelessness are a little bit shaky, very hard to get a solid number on them. As many as two-thirds of people who are unsheltered and homeless in the United States live in California, Oregon, and Washington. Homelessness has been a very visible crisis impossible to ignore on the West Coast, vast encampments of people living in city downtowns and in parks.
Before COVID-19, homelessness was the front and center issue in so many West Coast cities. It was getting a lot of attention. There was a ton of advocacy. It was in every city council meeting, every county council meeting. Now homelessness is one of many emergencies that states and cities and counties are dealing with. We're seeing advocates fighting for attention for this issue in a way that really hasn't been necessary in past years.
Matt: How are they fighting for attention, what does that look like?
Will: It looks like trying to use the media show up at city council meetings and government meetings and just reminding people in power that even though there are so many crises that we're dealing with right now, this homelessness emergency hasn't gone away. In fact, much of the West Coast, many of the cities on the West Coast were in an official state of emergency around homelessness before this began, and so COVID-19 is actually a state of emergency on top of a state of emergency in many of these cities.
Matt: Well, Anna, tell us what's going on in Philly, there have been a couple of homeless encampments around for months, but they apparently double as protest movements, right? Can you explain a bit about what these look like and what they're like?
Anna: Yes, for Philadelphia, it's a new and unique structure. We have had encampments of homeless folks for several years now that have grown in size and in prominence, and the city has swept them, cleared them out, and then people scatter and eventually regather somewhere else. Now, in the past couple of years, they've really been concentrated in the city's Kensington neighborhood, which is a couple of miles away from Center City and from where media and politicians sort of do their everyday work.
Now the largest encampment of homeless folks, which was organized in June by Affordable Housing advocates, is on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which is a very prominent space in the middle of the city. It's where the famous Art Museum is located. It's surrounded by luxury condos. It's really in a place that is impossible to ignore.
We now have this interesting confluence of the racial justice movement mixed with the movement for affordable housing for people living in homelessness. It's presenting the city with this really new and interesting challenge because they just can't handle this encampment like they have others in the past.
Matt: Are they making a connection between racial justice, The Black Lives Matter movements and homeless activism, are they making a connection there?
Anna: Very much so. The encampment was established two weeks into the racial justice protests here in Philadelphia, and it was immediately tied to Black Lives Matter. The activists connect the criminal justice system and policing systems with poverty and homelessness. There are a lot of Black men and women who are living in this homeless encampment who have been in and out of the criminal justice system almost all of their lives.
The organizers of this encampment are saying, "Look, this is all connected. If we reform our policing systems to stop disproportionately impacting Black people in Philadelphia, we can make a real change in what poverty and homelessness looks like in this city, if we can get people into housing, rather than putting them in temporary shelters or sending them back out onto the streets where, as the activists say, homelessness can be criminalized in a variety of ways. Whether that's folks being charged for substance use, public drunkenness, the like. These systems really are inextricably linked."
Matt: How is the city handling this? Are they allowing this homeless encampment to just stay in the center of town? I understand there's also a second one near the Philadelphia Housing Authorities Office. I imagine these folks can't stay living there in tents and whatnot indefinitely.
Anna: Yes, it's been interesting. The city has given several eviction notices at this point for both encampments. You're right. There is a smaller encampment in North Philadelphia outside the Housing Authority, which runs public housing in the city. So far, the people living there and the activists running these encampments have resisted these eviction notices in a variety of ways.
A couple of months ago, there was a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of the encampment residents claiming their first amendment right to protest was being violated, and several weeks ago, the city put out a final eviction notice. When outreach workers and police showed up early one morning, at seven o'clock, there were dozens of activists who had gathered to defend the camps with six boogie boards, makeshift shields, and it just was very clear that a sweep of the encampment was going to be really ugly. There was a ton of media there too to capture what occurred. Outreach workers and police stepped back, and no eviction has taken place yet. The city and the activists are still negotiating.
Matt: Will, you refer to a crisis on top of a crisis COVID and homelessness, what types of resources have been available to the homeless during the pandemic? Have those resources just been depleted across the board?
Will: Yes, I mean, it's been interesting to watch. The coronavirus pandemic has affected the homelessness crisis in a bunch of different ways. The first, obviously, is that it's forced millions of Americans to the brink of eviction. We know from studies here in Washington State that eviction is a main driver of homelessness. Back in June, I think it was estimated that a quarter-million people in Washington couldn't pay their rent, and they were only protected by a moratorium on evictions, so that's the main effect.
It's also-- The pandemic has scrambled the way that non-profits and local governments deal with homelessness, because early on, there was this fear that the thousands of people who are homeless on the West Coast and here in Washington State would be a vector for disease and would be especially vulnerable to the pandemic.
We know that people who are homeless have higher rates of chronic disease. A lot of people who are homeless have illnesses like COPD and emphysema and cancer that would make them vulnerable to COVID-19. A lot of people who are homeless live or spend their days in these really crowded environments like shelters and day centers. One thing that happened was, number one, shelters had to spread out their populations, and that reduced the capacity of shelters.
When you move beds 6 feet apart, some shelters had to cut their populations by as much as half in some cases. Also, what some governments and nonprofits did was that they started moving people from shelters into individual hotel rooms around Washington State and that's been really interesting to watch because there's this idea in homelessness services called Housing First.
The conventional wisdom is that when you put someone in a home, their other problems, might be addiction or mental illness or physical illness or disability, become much easier to deal with and that's what anecdotally a lot of service providers found. Once they moved someone from a crowded congregant shelter into a hotel room, suddenly, they were able to, in some cases, go into recovery for addiction. In some cases, just manage their addiction better. In some cases, just feel better. There were fewer fights, fewer conflicts between residents, people said they felt calmer staying in these hotel rooms.
Now there's a big push in Washington State to say, "Hey, maybe when this pandemic is over, maybe we don't go back to the congregant shelters. Maybe we try to keep this model going in some way, keep people in individual rooms. Whether it's buying hotels and using them permanently to house people, whether it's building some dormitory-style facility in the future."
The big problem, of course, is that local governments and state governments have been gutted by the economic fallout of the pandemic. The big question is that's a really expensive proposition that they're talking about and is there going to be any capacity to do that in the future?
Matt: Then you also have to convince neighbors to put up buildings, larger buildings, to house the homeless, which is obviously another issue. It gets to something that Anna mentioned earlier, she said that there were negotiations going on between the activists and the homeless in these encampments in Philadelphia and the city of Philadelphia. What are the negotiations about? Are they looking for this kind of housing that Will was referring to?
Anna: Yes, it's similar. I see a lot of parallels actually with what Will is talking about with regards to folks being fed up with the shelter system and feeling like they are healthier in a variety of ways when they have a space to themselves. The negotiations are related to that. The activists want the city to release vacant city-owned property into a land trust that the activists would control and then be able to dole out to the most vulnerable people who are living in the encampments.
Matt: We'll be following these stories out of Washington and Philadelphia. Anna Orso, a reporter with The Philadelphia Inquirer, thank you so much for being here, Anna.
Anna: Thanks, Matt.
Matt: Will James is a reporter with KNKX Public Radio in Washington, host of the Outsiders Podcast available wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks, Will. Thanks for being here.
Will: Yeah. Thanks for having me, man.
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