The coronavirus pandemic has placed an increased emphasis on housing as a social determinant of health. For those experiencing homelessness, the virus, if contracted, could be exacerbated due to inter-related conditions, including personal finances, poor living conditions, and the potential for existing untreated health issues.
COVID-19 is generally seen to have harsher effects on people 65 and older. Recent studies show that people experiencing homelessness age faster, generally due to decreased immune function and other impairments, potentially decreasing the risk age to 45 for this population.
A significant number of this population is already at elevated risk simply due to age-based factors. In 2017, 23% percent of shelter populations were age 50 or older. In 2019, approximately 107,194 unsheltered people (for a single night) were older than 45. It is estimated that 78% percent of unsheltered homeless people have some form of mental health problem and 84% of unsheltered and 19% of sheltered people experiencing homelessness have physical health issues. With social distancing a challenge for those tightly housed in homeless shelters, these combined factors propose an immense risk of COVID-19 contraction.
But the virus has the potential to also affect those who are not yet homeless but in danger of becoming homeless. In 2018, 10.9 billion American households spent 50% or more of their household income on housing alone. With COVID-19 either completely shutting down or heavily limiting available work for both blue- and white-collar workers, household finances have been drastically affected. A job loss or any negative employment change could drastically increase the potential for this group to experience homelessness.
Measures such as the Stimulus Relief Act and the order temporarily halting residential evictions provide some measure of relief. However, the temporary order halting evictions states that landlords, owners of a residential property, or other people with legal right to pursue eviction or possessory action are unable to do so while the order is effective. Sadly, the order has not prevented evictions from occurring around the country—largely impacting those who may—in some form—already be displaced.
The nomadic nature of many homeless people coupled with a limited ability to contact this population creates challenges in tracking the spread of COVID-19 and mitigating the disease.
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Gabrielle Miller is a member of the North Carolina Community Action Association Fellows Program. NCCAA Fellows are students or recent graduates pursuing a career in communications, graphic design, IT, public policy or a related field. They receive a stipend for their participation in the program. For more information on the NCCAA Communications Fellows Program, please contact Yvette Ruffin, director of the NCCAA Fellows Program at Yvette.firstname.lastname@example.org