Coronavirus: More than 500,000 homeless Americans are at high risk because they can't even wash hands safely
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has listed a number of ways people can avoid getting infected by coronavirus and some of the top precautionary measures include washing one's hands as frequently as possible for 20 seconds at a time and stocking up on food and medical supplies so that one can limit their visits to stores in case of a self-quarantine situation.
The advice is pretty easy to follow for someone who lives in a home with regular appliances and essential amenities to get one through the outbreak without having to set foot outside the house. But what about those without a permanent shelter above their heads or access to clean water?
According to the American think tank, Brookings, more than 500,000 people across the US are homeless. Among them, 60% live in temporary homes, including cars, shelters, or doubled-up with family and the remaining 40% do not have any kind of shelter above their heads and are forced to live on streets, parks and other open spaces.
This section of the population has no other option but to rely on public toilets for their daily needs, making them vulnerable to contracting coronavirus than any other section of society. Most of them are also over the age of 65 who are facing housing affordability issues, and experiencing chronic health issues including long-term illness, injuries, disabilities, or weakened immunity — making them, according to the CDC, the high-risk group if they are infected by the virus.
Stephanie (last name withheld), a woman who lives in her car in Lakewood, Washington, with her dog and cat, told Curbed why there was no way for her to follow the instructions given by the health officials to avoid contracting COVID-19.
"I can’t stock up on anything to get me through an extended period of illness,” she says. “I would have to go out every couple of days at least to get fresh food since I can’t store anything that needs to be refrigerated or heat anything up. I also need to be able to wash my hands and use the restroom, which I can’t do in my car. Plus I have a dog that needs to be taken out, so even if I’m sick, I have to take care of her.”
She added that she was also fed up of not finding any hand sanitizer in any of the local stores because panic-stricken people were hoarding up on sanitizing products amid the outbreak. “Since I live in my car, I always have some hand sanitizer,” she says. “But I don’t know if I have enough.”
And it's not just Washington. Los Angeles has the largest unsheltered population in the country with 44,000 people across the region sleeping in vehicles, tents, camps, and on sidewalks every night.
Last week LA County’s health department provided guidelines for shelters which included increasing the distance between shelter beds and setting up measures for quarantining individuals and appointing teams that would be responsible for checking the living conditions. Around the same time, two city council members introduced a motion to place hand-washing stations at homeless camps throughout the city.
“All Angelenos, regardless of their housing status, require access to hygiene resources to prevent any further spread of the virus,” council member Monica Rodriguez said in a statement.
It was a measure that public health activists had been demanding for a year now. “It’s unfortunate that it took a global crisis for our leaders to pay attention to this, because it risks furthering narratives that stigmatize and criminalize unhoused people,” says Mike Dickerson, an organizer with Ktown for All. “The need for hygiene stations and bathrooms are year-round and not specific to this outbreak. This new effort should focus on permanent changes that make our neighborhoods healthier long-term, rather than expensive temporary solutions.”
LA Mayor Eric Garcetti announced on March 15 that the city will be on lockdown till March 31.
“Our decisions will determine the fate of our loved ones, the length of this crisis,” he said in announcing the restrictions. “We need to take these steps to protect our city right now. The work we do now will have an impact on the city’s history. We need to do everything now to stop the spread of this virus.”