Houselessness is an everyday crisis. The pandemic, however, has highlighted just how vulnerable that population is. But extreme weather adds yet another threat. The Frontline dives into how the East Coast’s first snowstorm has further complicated the critical work of providing care to people experiencing houselessness.
WORDS BY Yessenia Funes
A few weeks ago, a houseless man in Brooklyn was found dead on the street. At the time of publishing, police suspect cold weather was to blame. On Dec. 18, 2020, he was honored during the annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day held every year by Care for the Homeless, a New York City-based organization that provides healthcare services to people experiencing houselessness.
The man’s name was never uncovered. “John Doe” appeared over a dark background of golden lights during the digital memorial. The man—in his 60s—was one of more than 300 houseless people who died in New York City this year. About a third of these deaths were from COVID-19. As we enter winter and deal with the fallout of “the biggest snowstorm in years” (as the New York Times called it), more people may die preventable deaths.
Welcome to The Frontline, where housing is a human right. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Many of you may be disheartened to miss your usual holiday celebrations this year—I know I am—but perspective is important: More than half a million people don’t even have stable shelter. On the East Coast, winter makes that reality even more dangerous for a population already struggling to find safety amid a pandemic that’s killed more than 1.6 million worldwide.
When nearly a foot of snow fell upon New York City last week, Care for the Homeless had to shut down some of its 26 health centers where people experiencing houselessness can access free medical attention—including anything from giving flu vaccines to providing substance abuse counselors. It goes without saying: People can’t just pop in and flood waiting rooms anymore. Individuals can’t share a dorm-room style space in a shelter. None of that is safe during a pandemic.
Thanks to COVID-19, the organization had already built out a robust telemedicine network; with staff at home, they could attend to any patient’s needs that way. But not every patient, of course, has access to a phone or internet. “A lot of shelters don’t have wifi access,” says Nathalie Interiano, the director of policy and advocacy at Care for the houseless. “We’re calling it ‘the bandwidth inequity.’ I think that’s the thing that’s really become a big sticking point for our work because, at this point, we’re in a world where we’re trying to connect virtually for everything: for meetings, for following up on applications for public assistance, or even viewing apartments.”
“Homelessness is always an emergency.”
This is just one of the many ways the coronavirus pandemic has complicated efforts from the organization—and its partners across the city—to help the houseless population. Additionally, people experiencing houselessness have historically been most vulnerable to viral infections like the flu due to shelters—as well as physical and sexual abuse.
“Homelessness is always an emergency,” says Elizabeth Bowen, an associate professor of social work at the University of Buffalo who studies houselessness. “When we have extreme weather events or the COVID-19 pandemic, it just really exposes, again, how vulnerable people without housing are, and yet those people are vulnerable every day of the year—maybe especially so during these other events—but there’s still great risk to the health and survival of houseless people every single day, even when there is not another disaster occurring.”
In New York City, for instance, the only warming center operating during last week’s storm was in Manhattan. The space had 15 chairs. City officials have added 1,200 more beds, supported emergency temporary housing (including in hotels), and developed outreach campaigns to reach more people experiencing street houselessness.
“Helping our neighbors experiencing unsheltered houselessness get back on their feet is hard work in the best of times,” said Neha Sharma, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of houseless Services, in a statement. “As the weather gets colder, our outreach teams will continue to be out across the five boroughs, implementing best practices, latest health guidance, and Code Blue protocols whenever appropriate, as they engage unsheltered New Yorkers and encourage them to accept services.”
But the city’s most vulnerable need more: Affordable housing is at the top of the list. Despite the stereotype of living on the street being due to unemployment or lack of ambition, many people who are experiencing houselessness have jobs and children, but they still aren’t paid enough to afford rent, says Interiano. So, they rely on shelters to provide temporary housing and safety solutions.
Houselessness isn’t unique to New York City, of course. While the city does hold more than one-fifth of the nation’s houseless population, extreme weather worsens everyday life for people already struggling with houselessness across the U.S. During summer, heat is a real threat. In the South, flooding is another risk. During the winter, however, the threat back in the East Coast becomes the snow. Even if you manage to stay warm, you’ve got to stay dry, too. We can’t ignore how global warming factors into all of this: Evidence suggests that the climate crisis may be increasing the likelihood of major winter storms instead of the milder snowfalls we used to see.
But even a relatively calm snow storm is enough to uproot the life of someone experiencing houselessness. This was true before COVID-19, and it’ll be true after. That’s why people like Interiano are already planning for the months ahead. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has placed a moratorium on evictions, which expires at the end of this year. That hasn’t actually stopped all evictions from happening, but advocates are worried the houselessness rate will spike soon after the moratorium ends.
“There are a lot more people becoming homeless now,” Interiano says. “We know that a lot of people are most likely going to get kicked out of their homes.”
Every year, navigating an escape from the weather can only exacerbate the trauma that comes with unstable living conditions. Add a terrifying pandemic into the mix, and you’ve got an ugly recipe for a public health crisis.
“We are already in an affordable housing crisis, and climate change is only going to make that worse as we have parts of the country that may become uninhabitable,” says Bowen. “People who have the most money and resources are going to be okay and find other alternatives, but people who don’t have that kind of money and power and resources are going to continue to be the most vulnerable.”