A Perfect Storm – Consequences of Homelessness During a Pandemic

As the pandemic continues, the wave building behind it is a tsunami of homelessness as low-wage earners lose ground because of pandemic-related job loss. The combination of unemployment and low-wage employment set against rising housing costs affects black and Hispanic families disproportionately.  It’s a battle no one is winning.

homelessness pandemic

Doug Smith, writing in the Los Angeles Times January 12, reports that over the next three years, our homeless population will triple. By 2023, there will be “more than 52,000 in LA County, 131,000 in California and 600,000 across the nation.” Note LA County is already struggling with one of the largest homeless populations in the country.

Low wage earners are the ones making our society work right now during lockdown. They’re the ones keeping grocery stores open, shuttling meals out to drivers waiting for take-out, retail clerks delivering orders to cars waiting for curbside pickup. As more and more of these earners lose their jobs, become ill and/or are evicted, we’ll see homelessness surge.

That’s not the worst news. Imagine that during a pandemic. The homeless are at the end of any kind of chain of services: no masks, no hand sanitizer, no healthy meals, no shelter, no medical services, no testing and no vaccine in a time when hospitals are overflowing. This while it’s estimated that one in every three people in LA County have or have had coronavirus. That’s one-third of the population, many of them asymptomatic, unconscious spreaders of the virus.

Remember when airlines had “smoking sections”? No partition, no plexiglass to contain secondhand smoke. Our situation reminds me of those years. Whether or not you were a smoker, you were affected. We need to face that we’re living in COVID-19-saturated circumstances. The homeless aren’t just in places like Skid Row. They’re ubiquitous, panhandling on street corners, sleeping under bridges, hanging out in DMV parking lots.

We can’t yet end the pandemic, regardless of what non-homeless people do, until we address the most vulnerable among us. No neighborhood is safe until they are all safe. That means getting services, testing and basic care to the homeless wherever they are. Not doing that is like being trapped in a well and digging down to get out.

Last spring and summer the National Veterans Foundation’s Outreach Team delivered “Survivor Boxes” to homeless communities and clusters in Los Angeles County. The boxes, which contained masks, hand sanitizer, food water and some personal hygiene items, were distributed to Veterans and non-veterans alike. Here’s what we heard most often from recipients: Thank you!  No one else is coming down here.

We publicized our effort as best we could, but no corporation, business, city or state government agency stepped in to help us. I don’t have to tell you how large the homeless population is. What’s needed is a concerted effort of individuals, corporations and service agencies to tackle this ticking time bomb.

Containing and then eradicating the virus won’t happen if our efforts do not include every single homeless person.

If you know a Veteran who needs help, here’s our Lifeline for Vets toll-free number: 888.777.4443.

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Shad Meshad

As a U.S. Army Medical Service Officer in Vietnam in 1970, Shad Meshad began pioneering treatment techniques for what would later become known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He is the founder of the National Veterans Foundation and founder and co-author of the VA’s Vet Center Program.

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