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COVID-19’s Impact on Homelessness

Everywhere you look, you can see the effect of the coronavirus pandemic. Many schools have gone remote, businesses have had to change their business models and, as of this writing, there have been over 200k deaths. It’s been a long battle against this disease and even now we are still trying to figure out how to best deal with it.

Dealing with a global pandemic has been hard on everyone, regardless of your situation. However, I have, as I’m sure you have too, thought about our homeless friends and how they might be affected. After all, how can one follow stay-at-home orders when they don’t have a home? What does shelter in place look like for someone who sleeps on a park bench? It’s important that even as we deal with our own struggles, we don’t forget “the least of these.” (Matthew 25:40)

It Hasn’t Been As Bad As We Feared

In 2019, many shelters were close to or at capacity. As the coronavirus began to take hold in early February, the predictions were grim for the homeless community. Without access to the same means and resources, it made sense. To wash your hands before a meal, you need soap and water. Masks were hard to come by at the beginning of the pandemic for everyone, let alone those that are a part of the homeless community. 

Experts saw what many considered a perfect storm of factors that was going to hit the homeless particularly hard. And, with limited resources to help them, those same experts didn’t have a lot of answers as to how we were supposed to prevent this large-scale spread from happening. I remember there being a lot of uncertainty and people asking questions we just didn’t have the answers to. Of course, all of this was happening at the same time as we were trying to figure out how to navigate our own lives.

Then the numbers started to come in and by the grace of God, those early predictions were way off. 

As of today, there have only been 204 reported homeless deaths due to COVID. That is .01% of what the highest projections were! Even if there is a significant number of unreported deaths, which there undoubtedly are, that is still far below what we all had originally feared. The total transmission numbers were much lower than anticipated as well, with only 5,857 reported cases. 

First of all, let’s take a moment to celebrate this news. 2020 has been a year where it feels like we have faced one crisis after another. So I look for any opportunity I can to express gratitude. 

Many homeless experts were left scratching their heads as to how this could have happened since the numbers were so far below their projects. This wasn’t just a statistical anomaly, they had fundamentally misunderstood something either about the coronavirus or about the current situation of homeless people.

In the latest episode of my podcast, Real Hope with Glenn Cranfield, I sit down with Citygate Network President John Ashman to discuss what may have led to this surprisingly good result.

The Citygate Network, in case you aren’t familiar, is North America’s oldest and largest community of independent, faith-based crisis shelters and life-transformation centers. In many cities, the Citygate shelter is the largest and most comprehensive homeless service provider in the area. In others, it is the only one. With over 300 member organizations (including Nashville Rescue Mission) The Citygate Network is uniquely positioned to see how the shelters are handling the pandemic. That’s why I was so thrilled to get John on the podcast this week. Homeless conditions aren’t ideal for spreading germs.

Homeless conditions aren’t ideal for spreading germs

In my interview with John, he points out that much of the day-to-day life of a homeless person keeps them at a lower risk for contracting coronavirus. Studies have shown that the virus is much less likely to transmit outdoors, which is where the majority of homeless people spend their time.

That is because the virus is most likely to spread when people are in prolonged close contact with one another. So far, scientists believe the virus spreads most through droplets that we spread through things like talking, sneezing, and coughing.

For both safety and social reasons, homeless people often avoid large crowds. They tend to stay more isolated than the average person or only spend their time with a select small group of people that they trust. Even in tent villages where homeless people gather, they don’t stay in close contact with one another. And, even if they spend their day downtown in a busy, urban area, they don’t typically go in the places where the virus is most likely to be spread — crowded schools, offices, restaurants, bars, and events.

By spending most of their time outdoors and distancing from one another, homeless people were already doing exactly what medical experts were recommending the rest of us to do to reduce our own risk.

Shelters have had a big impact — in a good way

One of the fears that many people had was that shelters represented one of the few places where homeless people would gather and potentially spread coronavirus. However, through proper training, shelter staff have acted as a resource for information and education. 

When asked to talk more about how helpful shelter staff have been, John told me, “In a place like the Nashville Rescue Mission and others, you have staff who care about these people. They’re looking at people saying, ‘Put that mask on. Did you wash your hands? Let’s go over here and use this hand sanitizer. Let’s space these out a little more.” He went on to say that he believes the fact that shelter staff watching over people in their care so closely had helped keep transmission numbers down.

It makes sense. I know at Nashville Rescue Mission, we implemented several new safety guidelines to help keep our staff and our guests as safe as possible. Coupled with the fact that our staff are some of the most trusted people in the homeless community, it doesn’t surprise me that shelters have been instrumental in keeping folks healthy. 

Deaths were low, but shelter attendance is up

While it is certainly good news that COVID-19 hasn’t made the effect to our homeless communities we thought it would, the financial and social impact of the pandemic is still very much being felt. 

Missions were full in 2019, but when COVID-19 hit there was a whole new wave of people that came in, putting additional pressure on the system. People who had been comfortable sleeping outside were no longer comfortable being out in public with crowds walking by. 

Many prisons released prisoners to contain the spread of the virus, but these people had nowhere to go. In fact, there were an estimated 16,000 people released back into the public due to coronavirus concerns.

Most heartbreaking of all was the sudden surge of children showing up to missions. When parents who were struggling lost their jobs, they couldn’t afford to feed their families. So, they sent their kids to go get food at missions and shelters. These are the kinds of stories that don’t show up in death statistics or hospital admissions that we need to pay attention to. 

There have been many studies showing the strain the pandemic has put on our mental health as a nation. While homeless populations haven’t been studied directly they are experiencing this mental health crisis right alongside the rest of us, and many of them without the support system of friends and family.

Our mission hasn’t changed

It is certainly good news that the homeless community hasn’t been devastated like we were worried it would have been. Still, our mission, and our calling as Christians, hasn’t changed. God tells us that the second greatest commandment is to “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:37-40) and to “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.” (Psalms 82:3)

We love because God first loved us, and it is His love that we pour out to everyone He puts on our path. This pandemic has been hard. It is perfectly understandable to feel the urge to retreat and use it as an excuse to hide away in the familiar. But that is not God’s plan for us. He calls us to be bold and courageous in our faith.

Whatever God is calling you to, I would encourage you to not put it off until “things get better”. God is in everything, even a global pandemic. Put on your mask, grab your hand sanitizer, and go forth into what He has planned for you.

Hear Glenn’s conversation with John Ashmen in this month’s episode of Real Hope. Listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.