Earlier this month, President Donald Trump signed an $8.3 billion emergency funding package focused on treating and preventing the further spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). The legislation will help advance vaccine development, increase state and local health budgets, and bolster research and equipment stockpiles. On March 14, the House also passed the First Families Coronavirus Response Act (H.R. 6201). This legislation was negotiated by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA-12) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and passed the House with bi-partisan support and the approval of the President. The bill would provide funding for paid emergency leave, establish free coronavirus testing, support state unemployment programs, expand food assistance for vulnerable children and families, and protect frontline health workers. The impact of these packages would be wide ranging, but according to medical researchers there are certain segments of the population that remain at higher risk and are therefore in most need of services. One of those groups is the 550,000 people currently homeless across the United States.
The potential for a coronavirus outbreak among people experiencing homelessness is raising serious concerns among public health and housing officials, especially in jurisdictions with persisting homelessness challenges like Washington’s King County and some of California’s local jurisdictions. Individuals and families experiencing homelessness could be the most vulnerable to the coronavirus, as they lack the ability to maintain proper precautions and may also face more danger from serious infection because of existing illnesses. Further, isolating the illness in shelters will be very challenging due to the inability to self-quarantine. King County Executive Dow Constantine announced that the county plans to open a number of self-contained housing units, specifically for people experiencing homelessness. In Los Angeles, the Department of Public Health plans to coordinate efforts with service providers and managers of shelters to help reduce the transmission of the virus and manage a quarantine if it becomes necessary. The City of New York recently issued an 11-page document instructing shelters to screen those displaying symptoms and identify and isolate people who test positive to the best of their ability. Dr. Helen Chu, an infectious disease doctor who has studied the spread of disease in homeless shelters in Seattle told the New York Times in an interview that people experiencing homelessness are “extremely vulnerable” to the coronavirus. She argues for urgent steps to test people for the virus in shelters to help stop what could a rapid transmission. State and local governments have also taken bold action to support low-income families and renters who are in jeopardy of going homeless if they are unable to pay rent. These measures include placing a temporary moritorium on evictions and ensuring running water and utilities for residents.
To learn more about what mayors, city councils, and agency staff are doing at the state and local level be sure to read National Senior Director of State and Local Policy Flora Arabo’s blog post. As Congress considers additional emergency packages to address the impact of the coronavirus on public health and the economy, we urge Members of Congress to include funds that address the affordability of housing.