In much of the country the homeless, even when crammed into tent camps under railway bridges, go unnoticed or ignored. A pandemic may have changed that.
Community spread is the chief concern of the public health officials working to stop Covid-19. That’s when a person who tests positive for the pathogen cannot name another with the disease who they came into contact with. They just caught it going about their business.
Several states and many cities have begun to combat this by issuing shelter in place orders. Outside of the United States entire countries are on lockdown. By keeping people apart and limiting contact officials believe the outbreak will come to an end.
That works when people are willing to remain at home, and when they have a home to remain in.
In shelters and in tent camps this is difficult to establish and enforce. There is little testing for the homeless, and no real medical infrastructure to treat them when they fall ill. We have no idea how many homeless people there are, let alone how many suffer from the effects of the coronavirus.
Community spread among this population is an ongoing threat.
In shelters social distance is almost impossible to maintain. And shelters are under severe strain as the volunteers who serve in them are beginning to not show up for fear of contracting coronavirus themselves.
When shelters have limited or no staff to feed and support the homeless they must close or restrict entry, and the homeless must leave and re-enter the community.
Some cities in the United States are beginning to move homeless people into quarantine in vacant hotel rooms or convention centers, but medical staff to treat ill people in these temporary residences is just not available under the strain of the increasing number of cases throughout the community. One idea has medical professionals who test positive moving into the same spaces.
In most places no law or will currently exists to enable governments to force people into separate housing or to force people into treatment.
In several instances in the United States homeless people who were admitted to hospitals after testing positive for Covid-19 just walked out before their treatment ended. They re-entered the community while still carrying the disease and still contagious.
The current crisis has exposed many public health issues that we must learn from and implement when this outbreak has ended. One most certainly is the lack of services available for the homeless. The services that do exist are decentralized and dependent on volunteers. Much of the time this serves the homeless well and should continue to be encouraged and supported. But under the severe conditions of a major crisis it’s just not enough.
This will become even more acute as the economic challenges that coincide with this public health crisis will cause the ranks of the homeless to swell.
Most of the homeless are innocent, helpless people who have fallen on hard times. It’s an illustration of their sad fate that society only notices them when they become a health threat under the guise of community spread.