How Has the Pandemic Affected the Homeless?

Homeless person
Health conditions and inadequate access to health care make people experiencing homelessness especially vulnerable to COVID-19, a UC Davis study has found. (Getty Images)

This blog summarizes and highlights an initial policy brief by Ryan Finnigan, associate professor of Sociology at the University of California, Davis. Read the full brief at the UC Davis Center for Poverty & Inequality website here.

Key Facts of the Study

  • Health conditions and inadequate access to health care make people experiencing homelessness especially vulnerable to COVID-19, but shelter-in-place orders and physical-distancing recommendations have reduced shelter capacities and other important services.
  • Data collected in October 2020 suggested that incidences of COVID-19 have been relatively low in number for people experiencing homelessness in Sacramento.
  • Income and job loss were more common than disease exposure. Relatively few people received stimulus payments in the spring of 2020, especially among those with little or no income.

Across the United States, the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are much greater for already disadvantaged people. The health and economic burdens faced by people experiencing homelessness make them especially vulnerable. This vulnerability has been heightened further by the widespread curtailing of crucial services for people experiencing homelessness following COVID-19 outbreaks at temporary shelters.

In a recent study, researchers surveyed close to 200 people experiencing homelessness in Sacramento, California. They found that financial difficulties associated with the pandemic had affected respondents more significantly than COVID-19 itself. This was compounded by the fact that relatively few of them had received stimulus payments. In light of these findings, policy makers should broaden their definition of the pandemic’s fallout with regard to people experiencing homelessness, and should work to proactively reduce existing barriers to economic relief associated with housing status.

Economic impacts more severe than health

The survey results demonstrated low exposure to COVID-19 for people experiencing homelessness in Sacramento. The economic impacts, however, were more severe. Almost two-fifths of survey participants reported a job or income loss between February and October 2020. Some participants told me that their income had not changed during the pandemic because they “never really had any anyway.” Rather than increasing deprivation for many people experiencing homelessness, the pandemic has arguably perpetuated their severe deprivation instead.

Such deprivation might have been partially alleviated by stimulus checks, beginning with those authorized by the CARES Act. However, fewer than half of the survey participants said they had received a pandemic relief payment in spring 2020, compared to 86 percent of very-low-income housed Californians. Survey participants with no monthly income or incomes below $500 in October 2020 were especially unlikely to say they received a payment.

Broaden definition of pandemic impacts to enhance support

Proactive and widespread testing and isolation appear to have been crucial for protecting people experiencing homelessness in Sacramento from SARS-CoV-2. Resources for these ongoing efforts should therefore be maintained.

Economic relief efforts should proactively address access-barriers related to housing status. Much like the first, the second round of stimulus payments in January 2021 likely failed to reach many people experiencing homelessness — as will any further payments unless significant adjustments are made. Greater outreach efforts could, for example, assist people experiencing homelessness apply for these payments without having filed taxes. These efforts to overcome the banking and identification requirements for stimulus payments could partially remedy unequal access related to housing status — a crucial step in easing the hardships faced by people experiencing homelessness, some of which have intensified during the current pandemic.


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