What the pandemic taught us about the homeless — and what we shouldn't forget

What the pandemic taught us about the homeless — and what we shouldn't forget
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The streets of our cities have been too empty and too full.

Emptied of cars and pedestrians, the streets of the pandemic became eerie still frames of an economy on pause. And yet, as we venture back to our sidewalks and storefronts, we are reminded that our streets also are a home, an imperfect and unsustainable haven for the transient masses we call “the homeless.” Never has it been starker than in the vacuum of social distancing that they are there, the only people who remained when all others retreated to the safety of their homes.

There is hope, however, in this bizarre moment, a silver lining in what the pandemic has forced us to do. Something we once feared was impossible is now beginning to erode the intractable status quo: Believe it or not, we are housing some of the homeless.

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California is leading the way with Project Roomkey, a $1 billion effort to house 15,000 homeless families in unused hotel rooms where their risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus is minimized. The state is leasing the rooms, but the terms of the agreement give it the option to purchase the properties. (In Finland, that has been one strategy that spurred a sharp decline in homelessness.) To date, California has procured more than 15,000 rooms and housed over 14,000 people — faster progress than we have ever seen in such a short time span.

All it took was a public health emergency.

As scholars of social work and real estate, we have opined for years that homelessness is a public health emergency and deserves to be treated as such. Instead, policymakers have bowed to the status quo, allowing local regulations, bureaucratic delays and NIMBY vetoes to stymie their efforts to acquire sites and build affordably.

Even when residents volunteered to pay billions of dollars more in taxes, local governments struggled to spend it. Facing so much neighborhood opposition and the long timeline to build affordable housing, their slow progress was unsurprising — but, ultimately, ill-matched to the urgency of the moment.

Now, finally, they are meeting this moment with the vigor it deserves.

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To be clear: Project Roomkey is not moving fast enough to save most of the homeless population from public health risks that are present on the streets and in crowded shelters. In the short run, this is disappointing. But if we think long term, we can see how this rate of progress can achieve monumental gains.

Unfortunately, California is not thinking big, and most other states aren’t thinking in the same way about housing people experiencing homelessness at all. In its wildest dreams, Project Roomkey is intended to house less than 30 percent of the homeless population.

Why stop there? And why not replicate and build on its success in cities across the nation?

For the first time in history, these cities could have emergency support from the federal government for 75 percent of the costs. That is what federal policymakers have promised to California. This is the emergency response we have been waiting for.

With the economic fallout from the pandemic and looming wave of renters likely to lose their housing as eviction moratoriums expire, the stakes are high. By the time this pandemic is over, experts predict that we are likely to see a substantial increase in homelessness, making this effort more necessary than ever before. Our research shows that increased income inequality leads to spikes in homelessness, and previous pandemics have tended to increase inequality.

In other words, when one emergency ends, another will become even worse.

Sometimes, emergencies reveal what needed to be done all along. When the Great Depression drove millions of Americans out of their homes, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his allies in Congress got the housing market back on its feet and then instituted reforms — Fannie Mae, the Federal Home Loan Banks, and the Federal Housing Administration — to make homeownership permanently more affordable.

As a result, American homeownership soared to unprecedented heights and has remained there. Of course, we know that this growth was far from equitable. African Americans were denied the benefits provided to white Americans through New Deal programs, meaning that rates of homeownership among Black Americans have lagged far behind those among their white counterparts. This fact, along with the broader impacts of structural racism, has carried over into homelessness: Whereas African Americans account for 13 percent of the U.S. population, they represent more than 40 percent of all those who experience homelessness. 

Never has there been a more opportune time to make a permanent and equitable investment in housing for the homeless. Across the United States, hotels are in distress. Some have closed permanently; most won’t fully recover for a long time. Will they be sold to Wall Street investors to be flipped for profit, or will they be used to help local communities?

Borrowing rates are low, and property prices are depressed. This is an opportunity that should be seized as part of a broader strategy to finally develop an effective and permanent solution to this country’s problems of housing affordability and homelessness. We urge policymakers and voters alike to learn one lesson of this pandemic: We can reduce chronic homelessness. We have already begun, but if we are complacent, we can easily backslide.

Never again should we let so many Americans be subjected to a public health crisis without a home of their own to protect them. We do not know how long it will take to again fill our streets with commerce and community, but we will find there the human beings we abandoned to the pandemic if we do not seize this opportunity to help them while we can.

Thomas Hugh Byrne is assistant professor of social work at Boston University. Benjamin F. Henwood is associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California. Anthony W. Orlando is assistant professor of finance, real estate and law at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.