By Sheeva Azma
Closing entire sectors of the economy — including lucrative industries like travel and entertainment — would not be good for the United States or the world. I justified it as a necessary evil, especially in the early days of the pandemic when the virus had just been identified and no cures or treatments were available.
I’m proud of how far we’ve come as a world in trusting science and adopting common-sense practices to curb the spread. The problem is that the pandemic has exacerbated an economic divide in which marginalized groups are bearing the brunt. While I feel sad and inconvenienced that I can’t go shopping, it’s nothing compared to a person who was let go from their retail job because of the world’s “new normal.”
It was around August or September or so when I started noticing something very troubling. Every day, as I would drive around town running my daily errands, I would see an increased number of panhandlers asking for food, money, or whatever else that could help. Yet, the people I saw were not those facing long-term homelessness that you would see in the grittier parts of town. One day, I saw a woman dressed in business casual clothing holding a sign and panhandling for money. She was more well-dressed than me.
One day, I saw a woman dressed in business casual clothing holding a sign and panhandling for money. She was more well-dressed than me.
This happened again and again until I finally couldn’t take it anymore when on one of my frequent thoroughfares, right next to a construction zone, a gentleman showed up with a sign that said he was recently homeless. What shocked me was the fact that he looked like he had just stepped out of work: a freshly shaved face, a clean shirt, neat-looking jeans. He must have been very recently removed from a life before the streets. It was difficult to be at the stoplight and think about him and all the other nameless faces he represented in the comfort of my car. I broke down in tears.
“What’s going on?” I wondered after my crying breakdown at the stoplight. “Where did all these people come from? What were their lives like before all of this had happened?”
I asked Sabra Boyd, a freelance journalist covering homelessness and child exploitation. Sabra’s no stranger to all of this, having experienced various gradations of homelessness herself — couch-surfing with her mom as a preteen, then later being kicked out of the house at age 14 once her family found more stable housing. Boyd still deals with a lot of trauma and anxiety regarding her experience of homelessness, and as the pandemic progresses, she is also seeing people around her lose their housing.
“With COVID, a lot of the entry-level service industry jobs that are easier to secure more quickly — working in a restaurant or retail, for example — have just disappeared. I have three friends who became homeless during COVID, and a lot of them have been dealing with scammers who make it difficult for them to find jobs,” Boyd told me.
COVID-19 has seemed to amplify homelessness, but not in the way one might expect. Although an eviction moratorium has been imposed by many communities, many people have living arrangements that are not subject to the moratorium. As a result, without a job or stable unemployment benefits, many people may be faced with different forms of homelessness — whether it’s asking to stay with a friend or family member or being out on the streets.
“Homelessness is a spectrum,” says Boyd. “There are people who couch-surf and that, in and of itself, can be dangerous. There’s a power dynamic — they might get sick of you staying there, or they might not be safe people to stay with. You really don’t have much agency — you’re not paying rent, and you can’t make any demands about living arrangements.”
There are people who couch-surf and that, in and of itself, can be dangerous. There’s a power dynamic — they might get sick of you staying there, or they might not be safe people to stay with. — Sabra Boyd, freelance writer covering homelessness
Despite the progress we’ve made and being able to slow the spread of COVID-19, one thing that has been happening since its earliest days is the job losses — furloughs, layoffs, workers getting their hours cut, workers quitting to avoid being exposed to COVID-19, and the like. In the early days of the pandemic, and even up to today, I would hear about long lines at our local state unemployment office. People would line up overnight to claim unemployment benefits, much like one might wait for tickets to a rock concert to be sold. Although the current unemployment rate is not as high as economists had feared — a 10% unemployment rate through the end of 2020 — things have not gotten that much better, with unemployment hovering around 8 or 9 percent. Instead, our entire country is suffering from a chronic economic problem that is costing Americans their entire livelihoods.
The pandemic has exacerbated the hardship experienced by two particular groups of people: one that is unemployed or underemployed that is completely struggling, economically, and perhaps even experiencing homelessness for the first time ever; and another, the essential workers who continue to remain relatively economically stable but feel overburdened by the unprecedented selflessness their work requires right now. The new “have-nots” are people who used to have regular jobs that are now experiencing various gradations of poverty and even facing the threat of homelessness. Many “haves” feel overburdened by a pandemic which is requiring them to put in more work than is humanly reasonable, but the alternative is a nonstarter — economic ruin and joblessness. “I haven’t been able to get unemployment for months,” I saw one person post on Reddit. “If I can’t figure this out, my two kids and I will soon be newly homeless.”
It doesn’t help that people have to pay a premium to do the things that keep them safe in the pandemic. Taking a bus costs a couple of dollars, but it exposes you to other people, which greatly increases the risk of COVID-19. That’s where having a car is useful, but of course, buying and maintaining a car is much more expensive. If you want to get groceries, you can wear a mask and go to the grocery store, but for a minimum purchase amount, you can do drive-thru pick up for free.
While long-term homelessness is already a difficult problem, COVID-19 has magnified its challenges. With COVID-19 rampant in homeless shelters, many are choosing to inhabit otherwise uninhabitable locales. Here in central Oklahoma, a number of tent communities have popped up reminiscent of Depression-era “Hoovervilles.” They are like the twisters you see often here in Tornado Alley: they pop up out of nowhere, mushroom in size, whimper in a hurry, and reappear somewhere else.
These makeshift communities face different dangers as they can often become inhospitable and pose health challenges. They also face the risk of being displaced by local authorities. Yet, people experiencing homelessness may feel more comfortable pitching a tent in isolation rather than risk being exposed to COVID-19 in a homeless shelter. And there’s a good reason they are opting to avoid shelters, as people without homes are especially prone to dying from COVID-19, according to a study published in the Lancet.
In a way, the COVID-19 pandemic is making homelessness more visible — forcing people out of shelters and causing them to opt to sleep outside. Yet, this visible problem is not the only part of the pandemic that is eating away at our social fabric. The local United Way in my city has posted signs all over town about the impacts of the pandemic: Over 10% of people in my area do not have health care coverage in the pandemic. 38,000+ people are food insecure, meaning that they do not always know if they will have enough to eat. One out of every eight children under the age of 18 lives in poverty. These eye-opening statistics would be troubling at any time, but in the pandemic, when it’s so logistically difficult to do many of the things that we take for granted, these problems signify the burden that many have had to bear in this unpredictable, yet seemingly endless pandemic.
Overall, the problems we are facing seem remarkably similar to middle-class homelessness during the 2008 financial crisis. Yet, that crisis may have made the impacts of the ongoing pandemic much worse.
The COVID-19 pandemic may present a double whammy for people who already experienced economic hardship in the 2008 financial crisis. According to research from the Pew Research Center, the number of people who consider themselves as “middle class” has decreased since 2008, while the number of people who consider themselves as “lower class” has increased. Boyd believes that partly has to do with people still recovering from the 2008 recession; living paycheck to paycheck in the years, they no longer have the luxury of rainy day funds. And we are currently staring at a once-in-a-century tempest.
Is it farfetched to think that COVID-19 will create a class of newly homeless people and a downward spiral of poverty and homelessness for many? I asked Boyd about my theory — sadly, she agreed with me.
Further, as Boyd notes, the problem may be much more pronounced and nuanced than the panhandlers I have been seeing outside. Regardless of one’s place on the homelessness spectrum, there are inherent dangers, Boyd relates: “Couch surfing, for example, can be just as unstable and dangerous as sleeping on the street.”
“Couch surfing, for example, can be just as unstable and dangerous as sleeping on the street.” — Sabra Boyd, freelance writer covering homelessness
If things don’t get better — say, with a cure or vaccine for COVID-19 which can reopen sectors of our economy — they are bound to get worse. White House Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci has stated that a vaccine would be widely available starting in April 2021. The Regeneron monoclonal antibody treatment recently administered to President Donald Trump during his recent stay at Walter Reed Medical Center is also only available in 50,000 doses. This means that tough times are ahead economically without much hope to end the COVID-19 pandemic.
With no end to the economic shutdown in sight as we continue to battle COVID-19 globally, the World Bank predicts that the next few months will bring what they call “extreme poverty.” By 2021, the World Bank estimates that over 150 million “extremely poor” people will exist. About 82% of extreme poverty will occur in middle-income countries, and urban areas will be increasingly affected.
It’s difficult to predict what will happen next in a rapidly evolving pandemic such as this one — one with vaccines and medicines on the horizon that remain relatively untested.
Without action, our only option as a world is to watch everyday people experience unprecedented levels of hardship due to circumstances entirely out of their own control. Regarding homelessness, Boyd recommends a “Housing-First” model — a solution to homelessness that provides permanent housing for those experiencing homelessness. As the National Alliance to End Homelessness explains, a housing-first model works to end the problem of homelessness not by relying on shelters, which are only open at certain times of day, but by providing permanent housing which can help people improve their quality of life and have a home base to pursue personal goals, such as overcoming drug addiction or getting a job.
Now is also a good time to be generous and compassionate — not only when it comes to issues of poverty and homelessness but in general. The next few months will test our humanity and it’s important that we remain united with our fellow world citizens in our goal of eradicating COVID-19.
I returned to the intersection where I first saw the well-dressed man. This time, I packed a slice of pumpkin pie, a can of soup, and a bottle of Gatorade.
The well-dressed man was not there, but someone else was in his place. I talked to him, and he told me he had lost his job, and eventually his house. I told him that I was keenly aware of the economic impact of the pandemic on people like him, that I was working on becoming an ally for the marginalized, and that there are a lot of people that care about him and his economic situation.
“God bless,” he told me at the end of our short, socially-distanced conversation.
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