Wash your hands. Distance yourself at least six feet away from others. Stay home.
These are straight forward directions that most of us can follow. But not so simple for the more than 500,000 Americans who are currently experiencing homelessness.
Earlier this morning, I read an article that was sounding the alarm about homelessness in California. The alarm was not about the safety and well-being of people living on the streets; it was a realization of the possibility that those people in encampments, many of whom are older and many of whom have at-risk medical conditions, could, in short order, take up all the hospital beds and available ventilators.
Suddenly the housed population is perhaps absorbing the notion that “housing is healthcare” on a more personal and somewhat twisted (to those of us in the business of social justice) level; the realization that “Joe Smith”, who is experiencing homelessness, could impact a housed person’s access to life-saving healthcare.
In California now, as in other parts of the United States, including Vermont, there is a scramble to get people experiencing homelessness out of places where there is no possibility of social distancing and into hotels, motels and even campers. Access to public toilets, hand-washing stations are popping up everywhere. Billions of dollars are being spent on this effort.
While it isn’t permanent housing, it is something and could help save lives. Frankly though, having fought against the plight of homelessness for several decades, it is hard not to feel a certain unease as cities and states mobilize resources in the ways I have always dreamed possible.
Does the motivation matter? Will a bright light in the darkness of the COVID-19 pandemic mean we move the needle in significant ways on housing our most vulnerable citizens? Will politicians and decision-makers finally connect the dots and understand housing is healthcare and housing means housing for all?
I know I shouldn’t go there, but I can’t help but imagine if our nation mobilized in the manner that it is now, 30 years ago when I had my first job working at a 300-bed shelter in Boston, if our nation had mobilized and ended homelessness then, how much pain, suffering and death would have been averted. I suppose every activist for every cause is thinking and feeling the same.
Well, we do know now our incredible capacity to mobilize. To act in a united way to save lives. I am hoping with every fiber of my being that when we are through this crisis that is stretching us as a nation, that we will not snap back into unconsciousness, but that we will use our new muscles to defeat other threats, including homelessness which has far too long attacked our most vulnerable citizens.
On a small stage, in a small state, where I continue my mission to end homelessness, the agency I love, Pathways Vermont, by the end of March will have housed 22 more people. Permanent, affordable, safe housing where “Joe Smith” can wash his hands, and stay home.
So unite and help to bring everyone home because you believe every human should be housed, or help because you want to be able to access a ventilator when you need it. I am ok with different motivations. Ending homelessness helps us all, and it will take all of us to end it.