Congress, don't forget homeless Americans in next relief package
© FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

COVID-19 threatens all Americans, but it's disproportionately hurting the neediest among us. Recent reports from Boston and San Francisco shelters indicate that the homeless population's infection rates are up to 20 times greater than those of the general population.

As Congress begins work on the next round of relief funds, it's critical that elected officials invest in health care and housing for these vulnerable Americans.

It's no mystery why the infection rate is so much higher among the homeless population. In congregate shelters, dozens or even hundreds of people sleep on cots in large rooms and share hygiene and dining facilities. Despite the best efforts of staffers, volunteers, and homeless people themselves, the virus can spread like wildfire in such environments.

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The COVID status of unsheltered homeless people -- those living on the streets, in encampments, or moving from place to place -- is unknown. But since nearly half of unsheltered people report underlying health conditions, if they do fall ill, they're much more likely to experience severe complications.

The president signed the CARES Act, which contains funds that states, localities, and nonprofit organizations can use to address the pandemic. The law earmarks $4 billion for homeless assistance through the Emergency Solutions Grant, which goes to states and local governments and funds a broad range of activities, ranging from shelter and services to short-term housing assistance.

This is the largest appropriation for a single homeless program in the nation's history. It will certainly be a lifeline for homeless people and those who serve them. The funds are greatly appreciated.

But significant as they are, they are not enough. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA, and Boston University estimate that $11.5 billion would be needed just to ensure that all homeless people have shelter space that meets CDC social distancing guidelines and can quarantine if they are especially vulnerable, older, or COVID-positive. This does not include, of course, the medical costs of caring for those who fall ill with the virus. And it only addresses the emergency -- not the on-going costs of sheltering and caring for people who will continue to be homeless when all of this is over, which run into the billions every year.

Congress could prevent a surge in homelessness, and help those who are already struggling, by concentrating on four urgent needs in the next relief package.

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First, appropriating an additional $11.5 billion for homeless assistance would help local and state-level homeless systems safely move people off the streets and into shelters, and ultimately out of shelters and into housing.

Second, emergency rental assistance could help avoid an unprecedented wave of homelessness. Over 30 million Americans have lost their jobs due to this crisis -- and many can't afford their rents. Unless lawmakers lend a hand, many will eventually find themselves out on the streets. An investment of $100 billion in emergency rental assistance would help keep landlords solvent and avoid large arrearages once eviction moratoriums are lifted.

Third, Congress could reduce chronic homelessness by providing long-term rental vouchers to elderly and severely disabled homeless people. Funding 200,000 new vouchers for two years, at an approximate cost of $4 billion, would help ensure that the most vulnerable members of our society don't die on the streets.

Fourth, lawmakers would be wise to address our nation's persistent shortage of affordable housing. If an infrastructure plan is developed, Congress could include substantial increases to the National Housing Trust Fund to spur the construction of more affordable rental units.

Budgets will be tight as the nation works towards an economic recovery. But there is a steep price to inequality, and we will pay it one way or another. Our leaders would be wise to invest in additional care for homeless people now, instead of waiting and allowing the problems to fester.

Nan Roman is president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.