(Image by congerdesign from Pixabay)
By now, you’ve probably heard the line, “It’s hard to abide by a ‘stay-at-home’ order when you don’t have your own home,” regarding the challenges faced by people experiencing homelessness when they try to abide by COVID-19 public health guidelines.
Compared to people who are literally street-homeless, those who reside in emergency shelters certainly have some advantages. In shelter, they can more easily access showers, bathrooms, laundry machines, and toiletries that enable a person to maintain a basic standard of hygiene. Many shelters also have their own professional cleaning staff to maintain and sanitize the facilities. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, some shelters are also investing heavily in personal protective equipment for staff and guests alike.
But social distancing in shelter is more of a challenge. Shelters are congregate settings, and when you share living quarters, dining areas, and bathrooms with 20, or 50, or over 100 people, maintaining 6-feet of distance from them at all times becomes complicated if not unmanageable.
This matters, because it can undermine other preventive efforts. For example, shelter staff might work hard to engage each of those 100 guests about regularly washing their hands, wearing a facemask, and not touching their faces — but all it takes is one forgetting to wash his hands, or refusing to wear the facemask, or wearing it improperly, to start an outbreak. Despite the diligent work by shelter staff to keep their facilities clean, and despite the diligent efforts by shelter guests to practice good hygiene, emergency shelters are inherently risky settings during a pandemic —s imply because they are congregate settings.
This is why schools and colleges across the country have closed. It’s why nursing homes have gone on lockdown. It’s why employers are letting you work from home. It’s also why we’ve seen cities and states rushing to move their homeless populations into trailers, motel rooms, hotel rooms — any kind of individualized housing unit — before a COVID-19 outbreak occurs or worsens in that population.
Perhaps it’s part of the reason why, in Philadelphia, the housing process for people experiencing homelessness remains active right now. We might not be able to quantify it, or fully explain it, but we know that it is much, much safer to get our shelter guests out of shelter and into housing than to keep them in shelter — and we’re trying to do it as fast as we can.
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In that sense, COVID-19 is raising what has always been an important question, but which has now become an urgent question: Is shelter obsolete?
Saying that shelter is obsolete doesn’t mean emergency shelter is useless. When a society experiences a housing crisis, emergency shelter can serve an important triage role — one that is literally the difference between life and death.
Saying that shelter is obsolete doesn’t mean emergency shelter is bad either. When a community experiences a housing crisis, it is good to provide emergency shelter services rather than let people live (or die) on the streets.
Lastly, saying that shelter is obsolete doesn’t mean emergency shelter is ineffective. When people experience a housing crisis, they can and do seek out emergency shelter. In fact, across the country, the demand for shelter beds regularly exceeds the supply.
Saying that emergency shelter is obsolete means that it is no longer the optimal response to the homelessness crisis, no longer the expression of our best effort or our best thinking as a society.
During a public health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, shelters have the potential to easily facilitate viral transmission amongst their residents. What we know is that the best public health guidance we currently have in this pandemic is to stay at home — and yes, we also know that it is hard to abide by a ‘stay-at-home’ order when you don’t have your own home.
So let’s make sure everyone has their own home.
This idea — the human right to housing — is what makes shelter obsolete, and it’s an idea that the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing our society to seriously reconsider.
I say “reconsider” because the human right to housing is nothing new to the United States.
The human right to housing was first articulated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights — a document that was ratified by the United States. Since then it has been reaffirmed in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; Article 27 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child; Article 5 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; Article 14 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; and Goal 11 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
For nearly a century, the international community — including the United States — has affirmed this bold idea: that no matter what happens, no matter who you are, no matter what you do, you deserve housing and you will have housing — and adequate housing, not just any kind of housing.
Wow, right? It’s a very bold idea, and it’s also possible — because the human right to housing is not a matter of physics. Literally. If I drop a book, it will fall to the ground — every single time. The law of gravity ensures it. But if you develop a severe substance use disorder, lose your job, and cannot pay your mortgage, the laws of physics do not dictate that you must become homeless.
Of course, if you develop a severe substance use disorder, lose your job, and cannot pay your mortgage, you likely will become homeless. But if that does happen, it happens because of a series of social, political, and legal decisions — things which can change in ways that the laws of gravity, thermodynamics, and motion cannot change. In that sense, how we think about housing is a matter of culture — which means homelessness is also a matter of culture, not physics. Homelessness can only occur in a culture in which people find it permissible for housing to be taken away.
Consider a culture where people may change their housing, but do not lose housing.
Consider a culture where people may be evicted, but are never evicted to the streets.
Consider a culture with universal rent control, a universal right to lease renewal, and prohibitions on no-cause evictions.
Consider a culture whose safety net for people who struggle with maintaining their current housing is a diverse portfolio of housing with support services, not a diverse portfolio of shelters, park benches, or street encampments.
Consider a culture that treats housing like a need, rather than a commodity.
Consider a culture that does not need public health guidelines for COVID-19 in shelters because it does not have shelters, because everyone who once was homeless has been housed.
This is a culture that treats housing like a human right.
A fully realized human right to housing is a matter of political will and political imagination. It is bold and it is possible.
As the COVID-19 pandemic is demonstrating, a fully realized human right to housing is also urgently necessary. The purpose of social distancing and “stay-at-home” orders is to stay away from other people, to prevent formal and informal social gatherings that facilitate contagion. Residing in an emergency shelter is, to varying degrees, a perpetual social gathering. There is always someone close at hand.
If our society is going to take public health seriously moving forward, we must ensure that all people are able to abide by a stay-at-home order — and the way to do that is to ensure that all people have a home of their own.
Shelters are not bad, they are not ineffective, and they are not useless. But from the perspective of public health and human rights, shelter is obsolete — because a shelter is simply not a home.-30-
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