Social distancing–pain or privilege?

The effect of COVID-19 on the OC homelessness crisis.

Lily Button, Editor-in-Chief

Ten months into the pandemic, when we think of social distancing it is only natural we consider the frustrations that arise from isolating ourselves from friends, family, and normal living. 

However, if we take a look at the world around us, the narrative of social distancing becomes one of privilege. Here at Sage Hill, many of us have the opportunity to self-isolate under our own roofs with the certainty of knowing where our next meal is coming from. This luxury is not the case for the thousands of homeless people in Orange County seeking shelter in a time when safe housing is more crucial than ever. 

The homelessness crisis both in Orange County and across the country has been compounded by the spread of COVID-19. With the initial closure of businesses during the pandemic, people living on the poverty line took the brunt of the economic blow. Despite the CARES Act’s efforts to prevent evictions for 120 days, the tenants unable to pay rent were eventually removed, leaving many families out on the streets, as described in Jeff Ernsthausen’s 2020 ProPublica article, “Despite Federal Ban…During the Pandemic”. The pandemic became a new cause of homelessness, in addition to an effect. Pre-existing medical conditions, limited access to shelters, and altered donation patterns are all major contributors to the pandemic’s heightened impact on America’s homeless communities.

The homeless demographic encounters an increased risk for the virus with, according to the 2018 Journal of the American College of Cardiology, homeless individuals more likely to suffer from cardiovascular diseases, which are known to create complications with the virus. With limited healthcare for homeless populations, most of these illnesses remain untreated, leaving immunocompromised patients without proper defense. 

Moreover, according to the Department of Housing and Security’s 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, 3000 to 4000 homeless adults over the age of 62 live on the streets of Los Angeles county per day, meaning there is a significant at-risk elderly population as well. Access to healthcare for homeless communities is limited, as is testing. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act ensures free testing for uninsured patients, but lack of transportation and the more imminent need for food and shelter hinder testing of the homeless and leave positive cases undiagnosed. 

The very lifestyle of a homeless person is challenged during this unprecedented period. While many individuals rely on shelters for meals and mattresses, social distancing capacities limit the number of people allowed inside these sites, many of which are temporarily closed due to the economic repercussions of the pandemic. Moreover, volunteers are scarce as nonprofits and shelters alike are forced to shut down their in-person programs for worker safety. This leaves more homeless people on the streets, where it is difficult to isolate and nearly impossible to obtain necessary materials for the recommended 10-day quarantine period when infected. 

Living day-to-day, many homeless people rely on charity and donations for their primary food source. With the onset of Coronavirus, many of us are more hesitant to approach a homeless person on the street and donate food directly. Likewise, in-person nonprofit donation sites prove to be a bigger hassle with the increased pandemic safety measures. Even though online donation portals have made virtual donating easier and more efficient, without the visual reminder of face-to-face interaction, there is a heightened chance of forgetting those in need. However, we must not adopt an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude when it comes to homelessness. The reality remains that homeless people are highly vulnerable in this pandemic, and it is our responsibility to keep their stories alive. 

We as a staff urge readers to advocate for our homeless communities and get involved in any way possible. Helping homelessness can mean spreading awareness, packing take-away bags at a soup kitchen, donating to a nonprofit, or even doing something as simple as social distancing. After all, it is a privilege to have the means to do so.