COVID-19 & Homelessness: Clear the Shelters, House People Now

From my work as a tenant attorney, I know firsthand that working-class DC residents were staring down the barrel of an existential threat (the affordable housing crisis) originating from a crisis of leadership at the District-wide level well before the COVID-19 pandemic. The primary cause of homelessness in DC is a lack of affordable housing created and exacerbated by our elected officials. For decades, our government has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into private development projects that routinely renege on legal affordability thresholds, erase family-sized units, and let affordability restrictions expire. Our tax dollars pay for this in the name of “affordable housing” and these developers fund re-election campaigns.

Most of my clients at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless worked full-time, making a $15 minimum wage in a city that costs $33/hr to live in. This disparity hits Black and Brown families the hardest: more than 20,000 Black residents were displaced between 2000-2013. As wages stagnated for working-class residents, the District’s subsidized housing waitlist ballooned to tens of thousands of people. It has been closed to new applicants since 2013. Meanwhile, new construction has shifted dramatically from cheap and mid-range builds to luxury units since 2001. DC has an emergent housing shortage estimated at 29,967 rental units needed for extremely low-income renters.

This accelerating crisis proves that local politicians have ceded control of housing policy to private developers for decades. The end result is that families are being displaced, rents are skyrocketing, and people are falling into homelessness while the city funnels hundreds of millions of public dollars into the construction of luxury assets that working-class residents cannot access. The thousands of human beings sleeping in their cars, on the streets, or in unsafe shelters are there because our elected officials are indebted to this failed strategy.

People Experiencing Homelessness Face Severe Health Threats in Shelter

The severe and chronic nature of homelessness in the District means that thousands of people experiencing homelessness face significantly higher risks of illness and death amidst the COVID-19 crisis. 

  • Single Shelters Do Not Accommodate Everyone: Typically, there is a severe shortage of shelter beds for single people, but in light of the crisis the District has opened hypothermia shelters to increase capacity. However, these shelters do not have spaces for adult family members or couples, forcing people to choose between accessing shelter and maintaining their support systems during this crisis. This means that many people experiencing homelessness opt out of shelter and cannot protect themselves by staying home or even washing their hands. 
  • Single Shelters Are Communal: Even those adults who are able to secure a bed are forced to share every aspect of the space with others. The space in most single shelters is communal in every sense: meals are in a single room, bathroom facilities are shared, and beds are stacked and arranged in common areas for sleeping. Further, many people experiencing homelessness cannot access healthcare, and if they do access the health care system, they cannot comply with self-quarantine orders because of the communal nature of the system. DHS has taken some steps, moving those deemed “medically vulnerable” to hotel sites and transitioning to grab-and-go food rather than shared ones, but these steps are far from adequate. The government is choosing who to protect and continuing to operate out of scarcity, when it should be acting to save lives, period.
  • Single Shelters Are In Poor Condition: It should come as no surprise that the shelters for singles are in poor condition. They are old, unclean, have poor ventilation, and routinely run low on essentials like soap and toilet paper. These conditions, combined with the fact that many people experiencing homelessness are elderly and have underlying chronic health issues, make members of this population vulnerable to worst-case-scenarios if the virus is contracted. 
  • Many Families Are Housed in Old Hotels: Currently, the District is housing hundreds of families experiencing homelessness in hotels on New York Avenue. These hotel rooms do not have cooking facilities to prepare healthy meals and have for years been reported to be unsanitary and unsafe. Without basic amenities, families are unable to safely shelter-in-place. Additionally, quality internet access is a significant challenge, especially for children now participating in distance learning, which compounds the educational damage caused by periods of homelessness.
  • Short-Term Family Shelters Are Partially Communal: Other families experiencing homelessness are housed in short-term family housing units, or family shelters, that have been recently constructed by the District. While much less communal than singles’ shelters, the family shelters still have shared spaces. Many families in short-term family housing share bathrooms with other families.

Taken together, these conditions will likely devastate the homeless populations of single people during this public health crisis and place families experiencing homelessness at increased and unnecessary risk. As always, Black residents face the most intense risk. Black residents make up 25% of the DC population, yet 71% of the homeless population. This vulnerability is reflected in COVID-19 mortality rates: Black residents make up 73% of deaths in DC. Furthermore, the systematic separation of people from their loved ones, and the lack of access to phones and internet to stay in touch, compound the emotional toll on people who are already deeply vulnerable to COVID-19.

Because our cost of living is so incredibly high, many people in all sectors of the economy – especially the service sector – have fallen into homelessness. These same workers have been deemed “essential employees” during COVID-19 – they are the workers in grocery stores, public transportation, and sanitation. It is unconscionable that with our robust local budget we have allowed people to fall into homelessness in the first place, and in the face of this unprecedented health crisis, clear and direct action must be taken. 

Clear The Shelters, House People Now

Shelters must be emptied immediately. The District should use every resource at its disposal to get our homeless population into safe, stable housing. The District should house residents in vacant units immediately, beginning with any development that has received a government subsidy, including Tax Increment Financing. Many of the buildings that have been subsidized by the District are luxury buildings that have high vacancy rates. Developers routinely charge exorbitant rents and seek relief for vacant units in various ways, cutting off the so-called “invisible hand” at the wrist. These units should be filled immediately at no cost to the District during the emergency. Furthermore, given the state of the health emergency, the District should use hotels, dorm rooms, and other vacant rooms to house singles immediately so that they can self quarantine. However, as discussed above, hotel units must only be a temporary stop gap until permanent units are secured. 

It is imperative from both a moral and public health perspective that homeless residents be able to self-quarantine to protect themselves and others. It should not be a privilege to stay safe and breathing during this crisis. While homeless singles and families are transitioned, they should have a needs assessment done and be given a permanent subsidy so they can continue to be housed post-pandemic. For decades, the District has had failed “10 year plans” to end homelessness. This pandemic must serve as a wake-up call – we as a society are only as strong as our most vulnerable members, -and the District has exacerbated these vulnerabilities by failing to create sustainable solutions to the housing affordability crisis.

A New Path Forward

Last May, Mayor Bowser signed an order to create 36,000 new housing units by 2025. This constitutes yet another enormous infusion of public dollars into the same failed system that landed us in this dual crisis. Instead, 100% of the District’s investment post-COVID-19 should be reallocated to social housing, a permanently affordable public asset. Critically, this will keep rent money previously turned over to developers and investors in everyday people’s pockets, which they in turn will reinvest to jumpstart our local economy. The District will also retain ownership of the land and the buildings on it, and the District, rather than private owners, will gain a permanent stream of revenue once the construction loans used to finance this investment are paid off. The days of turning over public land and tax dollars to private developers with a clear incentive to eradicate affordable housing are over. It’s time we started investing public money in the public good.