During the pandemic’s early days, there was a brief moment when protecting homeless people from the virus was deemed a priority. New York City saw overcrowded shelters as potential hot spots for Covid-19 infections. The solution was to lodge people experiencing homelessness in hotels that sat empty thanks to a decimated tourism industry.
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, homelessness had been surging even before the pandemic struck. By April, the city had launched Project Roomkey, which also sought to house unhoused Angelenos in shelter to prevent the spread of Covid. Los Angeles also launched a new program to provide hygiene stations for homeless encampments. Those units provided not just hand-washing stations to help cut down on the virus’s spread but also portable toilets — which countered one of the most underdiscussed issues facing people without homes.
Who are these laws and policies actually serving — people who are homeless or people who are housed?
Now, L.A. County officials say Project Roomkey is set to end in September, citing budgetary concerns. The Los Angeles Times reported the initiative never managed to hit its original goal of sheltering 15,000 people. New York City has likewise begun to shut down its hotel-lodging program and has already begun shipping people back to shelters.
This all leads to an important question: Who are these laws and policies actually serving — people who are homeless or people who are housed? The answer on both coasts can be seen pretty clearly in the return to pre-pandemic methods of addressing homelessness. That’s traditionally involved erasure, finding new ways to remove the evidence of homelessness from the city streets.
Here’s how The New York Times reported the current state of things here in New York City:
As the country’s most populous city strives to lure back tourists and office workers, it has undertaken an aggressive campaign to push homeless people off the streets of Manhattan.
City workers used to tear down one or two encampments a day. Now, they sometimes clear dozens. Since late May, teams that include sanitation workers in garbage trucks, police officers and outreach workers have cruised Manhattan around the clock, hitting the same spots over and over.
Things are no better in Los Angeles, where Mayor Eric Garcetti signed a newly passed ordinance that critics say basically makes being homeless in the city a crime. The provision outlaws “sitting, sleeping or storing items” around parks, schools, libraries and other public facilities, according to The L.A. Times. It also bans camping on sidewalks, underpasses, freeway ramps and within 1,000 feet of shelters.
The good news is City Council will have to vote in each case to approve removing encampments, and only after attempts to direct people living on the street into shelters. The bad news is advocates say there’s not nearly enough shelter space in the city to house the at least 41,000 people who are experiencing homelessness in the city. So what’s to be done with the overflow of people who can neither fit into shelters nor make their way into permanent housing? Well, they’ll be subject to misdemeanor charges if they continue their lawless camping on the street.
Let’s pause here to note how little the recent campaigns in New York and L.A. are focused on bettering the lives of people experiencing homelessness and in fact will instead leave them vulnerable to Covid-19. Whereas a year ago, cities were trying to prevent the pandemic from spreading among homeless populations, the current solution is to shove them into overcrowded shelters again, where social distancing is impossible.
There’s a cycle of stigmatization that pervades American homelessness policy.
The biggest difference now is vaccines. It may not shock you to learn there’s a vast disparity between housed people and unhoused people when it comes to vaccination rates.
L.A. County public health said in a July 30 news release that “of the vaccinated people experiencing homelessness, 20,188 are fully vaccinated.”
In New York City, the numbers are a little trickier, as only people who stay in a Department of Homeless Services facility are counted when vaccinated. As of July 2, according to City Limits, a little under 7,000 unhoused people had been fully vaccinated, compared to the 31,326 adults who stayed in a shelter the previous night.
Now compare those numbers to the 66 percent of adults who are fully vaccinated in New York City and 63 percent of all L.A. County residents 16 and older.
We have a situation where the broader populace no longer needs to worry that an outbreak among homeless people will affect them. That’s in turn led to a resurgence of residents who feel way too comfortable complaining about the eyesore unhoused people create. All too often, that includes familiar stereotypes about all unhoused people being mentally ill, drug users, violent or all three.
They’re also used as scapegoats for other problems, as we saw with New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang during the Democratic primary campaign this year. When asked at the final debate what he’d do differently to help homeless New Yorkers, Yang opted to tie the issue to attacks on Asian Americans.
"Yes, mentally ill people have rights, but you know who else have rights? We do: the people and families of the city," Yang said. "We have the right to walk the street and not fear for our safety because a mentally ill person is going to lash out at us."
He was rightly criticized for his framing of the issue because the harsh reality is that almost anyone can find themselves in a state of homelessness. If you fall behind on your rent payments for whatever reason, you could find yourself evicted — a mark that follows you even when you have the resources to find a new place to live.
It’s exactly what progressive Democrats have been warning about the last few weeks as the nationwide eviction moratorium expired. Billions of dollars in rental assistance that are available remain untapped, increasing the odds that once the more-limited moratorium that President Joe Biden approved Tuesday expires or is overturned by the courts, hundreds of thousands more people will be added to the tally of people experiencing homelessness.
There’s a cycle of stigmatization that pervades American homelessness policy. The person living in their car, or on the street, or in a shelter, often feels deep embarrassment at their situation and the ostracization from society it provokes. On the other side of the coin, housed people are embarrassed to have to walk past people experiencing homelessness every day, reminded of what could happen to them with a few missed paychecks. It becomes easier to cast homelessness as a personal failing — one worthy of judgement and scorn — than a systemic issue.
That’s partially why politicians at all levels of government have determined voters respond well at the ballot box when their safety and peace of mind is prioritized as more important than their unhoused neighbors’ humanity. And so, across the country in cities that are considered among the most liberal and progressive, Democratic elected officials have spent years trying to appease those voters, promising to crack down on vagrants and unhoused people deemed a blight.
It’s not like we don’t know the best solution to the issue: affordable, permanent housing. That means reducing the housing crunch that’s affecting many cities, especially in California, at least in part thanks to zoning laws that prevent building apartments or other high-density units. It means potentially converting vacant properties into housing units for homeless people. It also means cities transitioning from shelter models to the sort of permanent lodging that allows residents to access the social services needed to get them back on their feet. All too often, though, that doesn't play as well politically as demonizing homeless people does.
This means it’s not a surprise that New York and L.A. have made the policy choices they have. It’s just utterly disappointing that these efforts, which even in the best cases harry and dehumanize unhoused people, aren’t just the wrong path forward for ending homelessness. They are also poised to prove the last year was never about safeguarding homeless people from the novel coronavirus. It has been, as ever, about protecting housed people from homeless people.