In many ways, including the impact of social distancing to combat its spread, COVID-19 has disrupted our society and our daily activities. Social distancing requires people to limit their time in public spaces and, if they do venture out, to stand 6 feet apart from each other. Depending on the city, wearing a mask might be mandatory outside of the house. When the shelter-in-place orders were enacted, anyone who wasn’t considered an “essential worker” sought safety in their houses.
Due to a lack of needed resources, a large number of people do not have the privilege to shelter in place. People experiencing homelessness are a vulnerable population being excluded from disaster relief. In addition to the lack of support, the language used to describe people experiencing homelessness has been derogatory and dismissive of their realities. When California’s Bay Area trailblazed the idea of sheltering in place, elected officials stated that the most important thing we as a collective can do is “Wash our hands, and stay indoors.” The public statement disregards the intersectionality and realities of a lack of housing and resources to address personal hygiene for people experiencing homelessness. Without the necessary resources for housing, people who are suffering from homelessness cannot properly provide personal hygiene for themselves, especially during a time when their much-needed resources are being decreased during the shelter in place. I am afraid this vulnerable population will feel the brunt of COVID-19 the hardest.
Amid a public health crisis, keeping people safe and alive is the priority. Unfortunately, people experiencing homelessness are not having their basic needs met. Housing is essential to fighting the spread of the virus, because people cannot shelter in place or quarantine themselves without it. San Francisco has designated 7,000 hotel rooms to be given to people experiencing homelessness to use to shelter in place. The city has been practicing social distancing for two months, but very few rooms have been given to those in need. The East Bay also has many people experiencing homelessness and not as many resources to give. There should be better resource distribution throughout the Bay Area and communities across the world to provide essential health measures for people without homes, providing effective solutions that can benefit people experiencing homelessness during the current pandemic. This is especially the case since many people who live in the East Bay also work, go to school, and seek essential resources in San Francisco. Also, the East Bay has rising numbers of people experiencing homelessness. The attention is typically on San Francisco’s lack of housing and resources, when it is a problem throughout the Bay Area. Due to the geographic layout of the East Bay, shelters are fewer in numbers and further apart from one another compared to San Francisco. Providing housing and health care to everyone in the Bay Area is essential to combating the spread of COVID-19. This experience is not unfamiliar, as homelessness continues to surge throughout the United States and may continue to do so as the unemployment rates rise.
COVID-19 in Berkeley, California
Berkeley is unique, because the city tries not to uproot people who are experiencing homelessness, compared to San Francisco, where the police can tend to treat the homeless population harshly. However, Berkeley does allow people without homes to live in encampments of more than 30 to 40 people without being forced to move from areas by the police. While this is usually good policy, during the times of COVID-19, it might mean that these residents are not being required to seek shelter and more than likely will not be tested, causing further exposure of COVID-19.
Even if Berkeley did force people living in tents and on the streets to go to shelters, Berkeley has fewer than 10 shelters, compared to San Francisco, which has over 50 shelters. Berkeley also has fewer transportation options for people experiencing homelessness—their only means of transportation is the local AC Transit, which is free for people to use during COVID-19. Even if Berkeley did recommend that these individuals enter shelters, there’s no plan on how to store all their belongings. When public health experts come up with tactics to keep the public safe, they must take into consideration what this means for people who carry their lives with them.
Berkeley lacks the infrastructure to properly take care of people who are homeless. This causes me to believe that’s why the city of Berkeley allows this vulnerable population to exist on their own; because the city does not have enough infrastructure to cater to these needs. Organizations that usually go out to feed people in Berkeley have also cut back since the shelter-in-place order began, causing people to fend for themselves. It is understandable: These organizations are made up of people who have families, kids are out of school, and if these nonprofits are open, they currently lack the capacity to go out and provide outreach for all homeless communities in Berkeley. As you can see, social determinants in an East Bay community will suffer even more as we prepare for the second wave of COVID-19.
Mandated Mask Ordinance
Bay Area residents could face a criminal charge for not wearing a mask, scarf, or bandana over their nose and mouth in public spaces. Violators are considered a “menace to public health,” which is punishable by a fine, imprisonment—and, in some cases, both! This kind of order only makes sense for the privileged who have the capacity to buy face masks or have the material to make these masks. The orders only apply when you are in essential businesses or services like grocery stores or hospitals, using public transportation, or waiting in line outside. However, this ordinance lacks compassion for people who are experiencing homelessness in the East Bay. As San Francisco has provided masks for shelters to provide for this isolated population, the East Bay has not been as successful; most people who are experiencing homelessness in the East Bay are not wearing a mask. Not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t have the capacity to move around the East Bay as freely compared to those in San Francisco.
The East Bay does not have enough transportation options for people to move around, and now with these orders in place, these individuals cannot get on transit or BART without facing harassment, a fine, or imprisonment. “Well, why can’t they just use material to cover their face?” you may ask. Well, let me paint a picture for you. If you are homeless and lack a washing machine, how can you wash your clothing? Are we suggesting those who are homeless should wear dirty material that probably has fungus and other living microbes to cover their face, which hasn’t been washed in weeks or, in some cases, months? What does a mandated order mean to people experiencing homelessness? I believe it furthers stigma, ostracization, and a lack of empathy for our most vulnerable. In my opinion, our elected and public health officials have failed to include the essential needs to keep this population safe. The Bay Area should have passed out a mask to every homeless person, not just people in San Francisco. Masks for all people, not just some!
As we grapple with controlling the outbreaks of COVID-19, Black and Brown people are currently facing even more racism. Trump and his administration continually linking COVID-19 to China causes more discrimination against Asian Americans. Black people worldwide are facing severe discrimination as well, including in Gaungzhou, China, where some African residents have been forced out of their homes. To bring it back to America, in Oakland, California outreach workers for the city’s unhoused population were detained and pinned down in a public setting. These Black outreach workers, who are also unhoused, were passing out food, water, and hygiene materials and were racially profiled. Police admitted to thinking one of the Black men fit the description to a crime that happened locally. Later admitting they were wrong does not excuse the trauma they have prompted and the racial ideologies against Black men and women.
We the People Must Stand Together During COVID-19
During this critical time of COVID-19, residents have taken it upon themselves to help alleviate some of the stressors related to COVID-19 and homelessness. People are taking matters in their own hands, and scholars in Berkeley and Oakland are raising money and charging to the streets to feed people experiencing homelessness by providing nutritional meals to fill the gaps of organizations that usually feed people in the East Bay. Other residents are making and buying masks and providing them for people experiencing homelessness in Oakland. Some are donating clothes for people to have clean clothing during COVID-19. The people of the Bay Area are standing up with their own resources to help combat this pandemic, risking their health, because they have an understanding that the government cannot and will not look out for everyone. Therefore, people are taking a stand to remember our most vulnerable population. During this time of adversity and uncertainty, humanity is being tested, and our most innovative selves are being shown. We cannot progress as a collective if a large portion of our population is left behind.
Let’s not forget about the homeless!