Srdjan/Adobe Stock
Srdjan/Adobe Stock

This article first appeared in Affordable Housing Finance.

Local officials who aid the homeless are calling for more resources to help the nation’s most vulnerable residents amid the coronavirus crisis.

“Despite the fact that we have one of the best public health departments in the country here in King County, despite the fact that we have a strong network of providers, despite the fact that people are working incredibly hard to do vital work, we are behind where we need to be,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. “We need significant additional capacity and resources, and we needed them yesterday.”

In the Seattle area, there are roughly 12,000 people on any given night experiencing homelessness, and about half of them are unsheltered. Washington has been the hardest hit states by COVID-19,

The need for additional buildings and supplies to help individuals who are homeless is real, said Eisinger, who was among the housing and homelessness advocates on a call to discuss the coronavirus Monday. Held by the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition (DHRC), the teleconference drew 2,000 people from around the country, including shelter workers, public housing officials, housing developers, advocates, congressional staffers, and people who are homeless.

The same need is being felt 800 miles away in California’s Silicon Valley, where representatives of Destination: Home are teaming with local officials to find additional sites.

“We know we’re going to need more sites for quarantine for folks who are ill or isolation for just folks who are at great risk,” said David Low, director of policy and communications at Destination: Home, a public-private partnership that’s working to end homelessness in the area. “We didn’t have enough, nor near enough, capacity in housing and shelters before this crisis, and that situation will be magnified by what we are facing now.”

“We need significant additional capacity and resources, and we needed them yesterday.” -- Alison Eisinger, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness

Individuals who are homeless have a much harder time taking preventative measures to avoid transmission of viruses and other illnesses, according to speakers. Many states and cities have called on residents to stay home and shelter in place, but that advice doesn’t work for people who are homeless. In many cases, these individuals often have compromised immune systems and are greater health risks if they become sick.

“As we’re practicing social distancing, everybody know that’s very challenging to do in both individual and family shelter settings,” said Rachel Heller, CEO of Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association in Boston.

That’s why her organization is working with partners at the state and local levels to determine where people can go to get better and not spread infection.

“As far as what we really need right now from the federal level is a lot of money,” Heller said. “We are going to need rental assistance, homelessness prevention funds, and resources to help the affordable housing owners continue to operate.”

She is also concerned that delays in local zoning and other government meetings will mean important housing decisions are not being made. “We could be facing a slowdown of housing production for the next six to 18 months,” she said.

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is the nation’s largest public housing agency, with 400,000 residents living in 326 developments. This includes about 80,000 elderly residents in 71 senior housing developments.

Early on, the agency identified seniors has a high-risk group for the coronavirus and hired a contractor to do a deep cleaning of the senior buildings, according to Erin Burns-Maine, deputy director, Office of Intergovernmental Relations, at NYCHA.

In addition, the staff has been ramping up cleaning efforts in all high-traffic areas of its 2,200 buildings, 3,800 lobbies, and 3,100 elevators.

In another move, NYCHA has suspended all planned utility outages, which were scheduled to take place while plumbing and other repairs took place. “This is not the time that we can shut off hot water,” Burns-Maine said. “We have paused those for now.”

However, this may mean delays in the authority’s capital improvement work. NYCHA has also halted resident evictions for as long as the city is under a state of emergency.

“It’s no surprise to anyone that NYCHA like many public housing authorities is a cash-strapped agency,” Burns-Maine said. “We are tracking our expenses related to COVID-19. Every dollar that we spend is taking from another priority. We are taking and using our operating fund during this emergency.”

The virus is also expected to threaten the supply at food banks, which support low-income individuals and families.

In addition, officials are extremely concerned about the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis on individuals and families.

Even if someone does not get sick, he or she may lose work hours as restaurants, stores, and other work places shut down.

People in Silicon Valley are living in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, and the vast majority of extremely low-income residents are rent burdened, said Low.

Any kind of lost hours or income is going to push people toward a greater risk of homelessness, he said.The DHRC has created a set of recommendations to Congress to address the critical needs of homeless and low-income individuals, including:

  • Emergency McKinney-Vento funds to help local communities address the pressing needs of people experiencing homelessness, including resources to help individuals self-quarantine and isolate and to help shelters hire needed staff and obtain additional space. To ensure access to health care needs, Congress should ensure medical respite care is funded and should provide resources for outreach and street medicine;
  • A national moratorium on foreclosures, evictions, and homeless encampment sweeps to help renters and home owners remain stably housed during and after the coronavirus outbreak, and to protect against further spread of coronavirus among people experiencing homelessness, as well as limited and targeted rental assistance;
  • The creation of an emergency assistance fund to help prevent evictions by providing short-term financial assistance and housing stabilization services; and
  • Access to legal services and foreclosure and eviction counseling.

For more stories like this, please visit Affordable Housing Finance.

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