half a million people in the United States lack a stable, safe place to sleep. For people experiencing homelessness, the pandemic has brought added challenges to already difficult circumstances. People experiencing homelessness are at increased risk for contracting COVID-19 and for becoming sicker and dying of COVID-19. That’s because they often have underlying health conditions, lack access to quality health care, and have limited ways to quarantine safely.
Research shows that of people experiencing homelessness in the United States, people of color, people with mental health challenges, and LGBTQ adults and youth are overrepresented. For example, LGBTQ youth were 2.2 times more likely to experience homelessness than their peers, with Black LGBTQ youth at the highest risk. And 17% of sexual minority adults have experienced homelessness in their lifetime—twice the rate of the general population.
Despite the economic turmoil the pandemic has brought, there’s only a limited extent to which governments have stepped in to provide financial assistance and protection from evictions and foreclosures. Yet the number of people in the United States who may be experiencing homelessness has likely increased over the past few months. When evictions moratorium end, economists predict homelessness rates could increase by 40%, with an estimated 250,000 more people experiencing homelessness by the end of 2020.
In some places, cities and counties have secured hotel and motel rooms for particularly high-risk people who might otherwise be sleeping in overcrowded shelters or on the streets. These are important efforts designed to serve an acute need and they demonstrate that there can be ways, and political will, to rapidly house people.
The question remains of what happens to people as the public health crisis wanes. Will they be left to return to the streets? Will municipalities and social service agencies work to develop plans to address homelessness and help people find stable, secure housing beyond the pandemic? What’s more, many service providers have responded to public health guidelines and the need to protect people’s health by reducing the number of people shelters can house, reducing services, and even closing.
In the midst of the pandemic and knowing what risks exist for people experiencing homelessness, on July 1, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced a new proposed rule that would allow HUD-funded shelters to turn away transgender people. Being denied access to a shelter is particularly detrimental to transgender people who are at increased risk for homelessness, violence, and harassment.
According to the U.S. Transgender Discrimination Survey, 29% of transgender people lived in poverty in 2015 and one in three transgender people in the United States has experienced homelessness at some point in their lifetimes. A recent analysis of nationally representative surveys by the Williams Institute found that 8% of transgender people reported experiencing homelessness in the past year alone, compared to 1% of straight cisgender people. The HUD proposed rule came just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that discrimination based on sex includes discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, a ruling that impacts federal housing laws which prohibit discrimination based on sex.
Homelessness itself is its own public emergency, and will only continue to grow as new hotspots for the pandemic emerge. Elected leaders and city officials must expand efforts to address affordable housing and homelessness to keep everyone safe.
Resources on Housing & Homelessness
• National Alliance to End Homelessness: How to Get Help If You Are Experiencing Homelessness
• Learn more about Point Source Youth and their goal of increasing housing options for youth, especially queer youth: pointsourceyouth.org
• Read more about the experiences of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.
• Consider joining your local mutual aid network to help individuals and families who are homeless or were previously homeless.
• If you’re able, donate to a COVID-19 Relief Fund that helps support LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit young people 26 and under who have experienced homelessness. You can also help spread the word about the fund on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.