The Unique Challenges That Coronavirus Presents to the Homeless

Responding to COVID-19’s aggressive spread has posed great challenges for many city politicians and service providers. From the beginning, it was apparent that the homeless faced unique risks and required special accommodations. The homeless live in dense, often unsanitary conditions and have poor health. One group of researchers estimated that 40 percent of the homeless could catch coronavirus, leading to potentially thousands of deaths.

As is the case with the COVID-19 pandemic more broadly, homelessness policymakers have had to base their decisions on sketchy information and conjecture. Nightmarish scenarios have not yet come to pass. But it’s not too early to begin to assess what’s working, early signs of strain, and the general state of “known unknowns” with respect to coronavirus and homelessness.

New York City and Boston combined, as of early this week, probably had about 500 confirmed cases among their homeless populations. Los Angeles and San Francisco, about 20, despite being internationally notorious for their homelessness crisis. This could be because those cities’ mayors and Gov. Gavin Newsom enacted protective measures.

Another factor, though, might be that the homeless of New York and Boston live mostly in shelters, and most of the homeless of San Francisco and Los Angeles live on the streets. The percentage of “unsheltered” homelessness in New York and Boston is 5 percent and 2 percent, respectively, in contrast to San Francisco’s 64 percent and Los Angeles’ 75 percent

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