The main directive from the CDC is to stay home. This is important and necessary guidance. But what if you don’t have a home?
People experiencing homelessness are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. Because they usually don’t have access to healthcare, consistent or nutritious food and other basic human needs, they are often sicker than the general population. Frequent hand-washing is named as a preventative measure, but many people experiencing homelessness don’t have access to clean water. And half of people experiencing homelessness are over 50.
Margot Kushel, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco who studies homelessness, said, “They [people experiencing homelessness] also age prematurely. If they’re 50, physiologically, medically, their bodies act more like they’re 70 or 80 because of the incredible challenges of being homeless.”
A lot of the guidelines are telling people at risk for severe complications from COVID-19 to take extra precautions. But most people experiencing homelessness are at high risk, and they don’t have a lot of control over their environment. Soup kitchens, homeless shelters and other services people rely on are inherently antithetical to social distancing. And a lot of services, like soup kitchens, are closing. Gyms, libraries, and other places people might have used bathrooms are also closed.
Encampments allow for easy spread of the virus as well. The CDC recommends that shelters stay open, with plans to keep people six feet apart and alternate places to house those who are sick. But I’d imagine that many shelters are not equipped for this, especially if people get sick en masse. Which is bound to happen if even one person gets sick in such in close quarters.
Some states have started moving people into hotel rooms. But there are barriers to this, too. Some hotels refuse to house people who have been homeless. Others are concerned about staffing. And there is the worry about addiction thriving in isolation. “I worry too about folks who have opioid use disorders being behind closed doors,” Kushel says. “You need to make sure that they have opportunities for opioid replacement therapy, and you would want to make sure that, if they were injecting drugs, you have other people around.”
One study found that 25% of people experiencing homelessness identified drug use as the reason for homelessness. Another found that those experiencing homelessness are nine times more likely to die of an overdose than those who are not.
According to Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 80% of women experiencing homelessness struggle with addiction, poor mental health and a serious chronic illness all at the same time. A 2010 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report found that over 26% of all those experiencing homelessness who lived in shelters had a severe mental health disorder. Almost 35% had a Substance Use Disorder. This does not include statistics for people who live in encampments or other places outside a shelter.
Homelessness is taxing on the body and the mind. COVID-19 adds a whole other level of immense difficulty. Organizations serving homeless populations and ones treating addiction and mental health should be ready to work together to keep people safe.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, there is hope. TruHealing Centers is open and here for you during this crisis, with hospital-grade sanitization at all of our facilities to ensure safety. At each of our recovery centers across the country, we provide compassionate care to help you thrive in long-term recovery. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.