US Human Rights Network Blog

US Human Rights Network Blog



Members advocate for people experiencing homelessness during COVID-19 and beyond

Apr 28, 2020

People experiencing homelessness are one of the communities most at risk during the coronavirus pandemic. People who do not have access to adequate sanitation and shelter are unable to practice the basic requirements for social distancing and hygiene to keep themselves safe from the virus and prevent community spread. 

This month, we spoke with US Human Rights Network Board Member Eric Tars, who serves as Legal Director at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) to discuss his ongoing work to pressure the CDC and all levels of government to protect people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic and beyond. 

Shortly after we spoke with Eric, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated their official guidance on COVID-19 to include sheltered homeless populations, stating, “Depending on resources and staff availability, non-group housing options (such as hotels/motels) that have individual rooms should be considered for the overflow, quarantine, and protective housing sites.” The NLCHP is continuing to advocate for the provision of individual housing units for people experiencing homelessness.

Check out an excerpt from our discussion with Eric to learn about his ongoing advocacy for people experiencing homelessness below.

For more information on advocating for people experiencing homelessness during COVID-19, check out this new report by UC Berkeley School of Public Health Community Action Team titled “For the Good of Us All: Addressing the Needs of our Unhoused Neighbors During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

Q) Can you tell us about your efforts to protect people experiencing homelessness during COVID-19?

We worked with public health professionals and got the CDC to issue guidance saying that people living in unsheltered encampments should not be put into any kind of congregate shelter setting. They also said that they should only be removed from their encampments if individual housing units are available, like hotels that are standing vacant right now. 

The following week, we got the CARES Act passed and we got billions of dollars for communities to actually rent those hotel rooms. We made sure they could start doing it immediately without procurement bidding requirements, so that they could spend the money immediately and ensured that anything they spent would be reimbursable.

Q) What are some of the key challenges right now?  

From a public health perspective it’s so obvious that the last place you would want to be putting people is a congregate environment where already medically vulnerable people would be breathing the same air, using the same bathrooms, etcetera. 

Because our country knows no bounds in its ability to maintain stigma and prejudice, even after all [the CDC guidance and CARES Act] happened, we saw Las Vegas painting lines on a parking lot to space people out. Somebody came up with that idea, and spent money to put people out there to paint lines on a parking lot during this crisis, because they couldn’t see people experiencing homelessness as deserving what everybody else deserves. Why not be spending your time and resources and energy negotiating with hotel providers to put people into housing? Hotels who, at that moment, were begging for public dollars. 

We’ve heard that in a lot of communities, even though they aren’t making any money right now, hotels are still reluctant because of all of the myths and stigma around people experiencing homelessness; they don’t want them in there. They’re afraid that it will damage their brand, that there will be damages to the property. Any city could rent a block of 300 rooms for any other purpose and the hotels would think it was awesome, but now you want to rent 300 rooms and all of a sudden it’s a problem because of who is going to be put in there. There is so much prejudice and discrimination. 


Q) What is your most urgent concern right now?

We do have this good guidance that is at least allowing encampments to remain and getting some communities into housing, and others are at least providing hand washing stations and porta potties and things like that. That situation is not perfect, but it’s fairly okay. Now my real concern is the shelters. There was an op-ed from 100 physicians and medical workers saying people need to be moved out of shelters now. There’s a ton of amazing organizing going on. Human rights language is all through it. Check out Brooke Anderson photography if you haven't seen it. They did a vehicle protest and so many people had “housing is a human right” signs coming out of their cars.

News came out that 90 out of 160 people in one of the homeless shelters had tested positive -- more than half. The city’s position is that they'll move all of the medically vulnerable people, the elderly people, and anybody who's symptomatic. If you’re moving out somebody who's symptomatic, we’ve known for months that at that point it’s already too late; they’ve already been contagious for five days. What’s the point?

We needed everybody in individual housing units yesterday. Now there are the resources to do it, there is zero excuse not to do it. The bottomline that I keep reiterating is that this is not just about the people experiencing homelessness. Homeless people are 2 times as likely to be infected, 2-4 times as likely to need intensive care, and 2-3 times as likely to die from COVID. So, if you don’t want a hospital bed filled when you need it, or when your grandmother needs it, or when your brother or sister needs it, then you need to take a step now to make sure that a homeless person isn’t in there -- and not only that but isn’t in two of those beds since we know homeless people are twice as likely to get infected. We’re all in this together. Those beds, those ventilators, there’s only a limited number of them. 

If we are willing to take the financial hit of shutting down entire cities, then why aren’t we able to spend the money to do exactly what the CDC says to be done? We don’t want people gathering in groups of more than 10, let alone a shetler of 300 people; that shelter in it’s very existence violates the CDC order. We need to completely shift everything, we need to get people into housing today. If we don’t, it’s going to explode. We’ve seen this starting in New York, San Francisco, Boston, and it’s really scary. 

We’re working right now to get the CDC to issue guidance saying everybody needs to be moved out of shelters and into hotels right now. The guidance for shelters is very weak, it’s like, try to move people who are medically vulnerable out, try to put people experiencing symptoms into isolated situations, but that language hasn’t been updated since the beginning of the crisis. It is past the time for that. 

Q) What is your vision for how these rapid changes could impact people experiencing homelessness in the long term?

My goal is that once people are in hotel rooms, they never go back to the shelters, they never go back to the streets; they go into housing because housing is a human right. It is life or death right now, we need to get people out of congregate shelters. We need to spend money, give it to hotels. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but that’s the way it has to be. We need to get people safe. 

As we get to the future rounds of relief and stimulus bills that are going to happen, we are thinking about how to set it up with cities using their community development block grant dollars to purchase hotels that might go under, and retrofit them to become low-income and affordable housing. Or can they be building new housing? What are the options so that we come out of this not going back to the unjust norm that existed before? We want to move forward in a permanent way from this because there’s an understanding of how interconnected everything is, and that housing is healthcare, and it’s public healthcare. So if we don’t want to be vulnerable to the next crisis like this, we need to take these steps now. This is long term prevention. And it’s prevention that pays back hand over fist.