The Impact of Coronavirus on America’s Homeless Communities

April 17, 2020 by Benjamin Kamelhar

by Greg Herrigel

In the midst of the coronavirus outbreak that is worsening by the day, America’s homeless population faces a unique and unprecedented threat. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as of January 2019, an estimated 567,715 people experienced homelessness across the United States.[1] This constitutes a huge number of Americans who face exposure to the elements and lack access to adequate healthcare,[2] thus leaving them at high risk of contracting a respiratory illness like coronavirus. Infectious diseases are already seen at high rates among their community; according to Professor Michael Cousineau from the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, “[s]ince those of us who work with the homeless have been keeping data, we know that homeless people have a higher risk of tuberculosis, hepatitis, HIV and pneumonia.”[3] Once diseases are contracted, there are higher mortality rates among this community, as well. In fact, an outbreak of hepatitis A ravaged San Diego County in California during 2017 and 2018, infecting six hundred people[4] and leaving twenty homeless people dead, [5] even though it is a curable disease.

Similar results are already being seen under the reign of coronavirus. California Governor Gavin Newson announced that seven homeless individuals living in shelters had contracted COVID-19,[6] with the first homeless death occurring on March 18.[7] Likewise, the New York Department of Social Services announced that there were seventeen infected homeless New Yorkers from twelve different shelters as of March 22, and that the first homeless death from the virus had occurred by March 26.[8] Unfortunately, these are likely the first deaths of many. Additionally, the homeless population skews increasingly older, placing them at even more considerable risk; the CEO of HomeFirst in California, Andrea Urton, noted that “[w]e’ve had a huge increase in the number of people who are 55 and up over the last couple of years, and many of those folks — because they’ve been homeless for a long period of time — come with health issues . . . Those folks are worried.”[9]

Equally as problematic, and tied to the homeless community’s pre-existing health conditions, is their enormous amount of exposure to the virus. As the rest of us are told to “avoid close contact” and “stay home if you are sick” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),[10] these people face a terrible reality: they have no homes in which to socially distance themselves from each other or from the rest of the population. The founder of nonprofit Beauty 2 The Streetz, Shirley Raines, perhaps put it best when she said, “[s]ocial distance is a luxury that the homeless can’t afford.”[11] Even if they are lucky enough to be staying in a homeless shelter, they are all too often living in extremely close proximity to one another in facilities that are filled to maximum capacity. The president of the Lotus House shelter in Miami, Constance Collins, notes that “[w]e are still doing activities while practicing 6-foot social distancing but it’s especially hard when you have 250 children in one place.”[12] Bob McElroy, who runs a homeless shelter in San Diego, knows what would happen if one of the 300 people in his shelter contracted the virus, especially considering that there are only two feet between each set of bunk beds: “We’re just saying our prayers. If it gets in here it would be a disaster.” In terms of cleanliness and sanitation, homeless individuals also find themselves at a unique disadvantage. While the CDC recommends that everyone properly “wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds” or “use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol,”[13] these individuals often have no way to properly cleanse themselves; even shelters do not always have bathrooms or cleaning supplies for necessary sanitation.[14] Moreover, despite the incredibly giving nature of their hearts and their best intentions, those working at and in charge of homeless shelters are unlikely to have training in how to prevent this disease from spreading amongst those staying at their facilities.[15] And many volunteers are now understandably choosing to stay at home, which will have a drastic impact on the communities they usually serve: “without volunteers, the homeless community will not be able to receive all the services that are essential to their wellbeing . . . like delivering meals and hygiene kits.”[16] All in all, the homeless population is at high risk of contracting the disease and spreading it amongst themselves and will likely suffer the most out of all of us when the virus comes knocking.

The fact that this pandemic poses a threat to this community should already be enough for governmental authorities to want to take action. However, it is worth noting the threat that the spread of the virus amongst the homeless population could also pose to the rest of society. Those who cannot find a place to sleep in a shelter, for example, “may sleep in train or bus stations, ride subways or buses or go the waiting room of a hospital emergency department for the evening,” all of which constitute hugely populated and common areas “where an exposed person could contaminate doors and bathroom fixtures, chairs or other objects, providing opportunities for spreading the infection to others.”[17]

Some incredible solutions have already been implemented by private institutions across the country. For example, the Jupiter Hotel in Portland, managed by Nick Pearson, is one private company donating eighty-one rooms to help house the local homeless population during these trying times.[18] However, while such acts of charity are important and will help our nation get through this difficult time, more needs to be done by those in public office to provide a regulated and cohesive response for homeless Americans facing this pandemic. None of the plans from the White House nor the Department of Housing and Urban Development have thus far included any specific plans or details for the homeless.[19] The president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Diane Yentel, criticized the emergency spending bill passed by Congress and signed by President Trump last week for entirely neglecting “the urgent needs of people experiencing homelessness . . . Providing resources to protect against an outbreak of coronavirus among people who are homeless is not only a moral imperative, it’s an urgent public health necessity.”[20]

Fortunately, local governments have shown more attention to this issue. In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser has taken emergency measures to house homeless families for up to sixty days, and Wayne Turnage, deputy mayor for health and human services, claims that hand sanitizer is being passed out to homeless people and that homeless encampments are being cleaned of trash rather than forcibly broken up.[21] In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed approved a five million dollar emergency fund to help “people living in shelters, single-room occupancy hotels, and permanent supportive housing” through efforts like expanded cleaning and provisions of food,[22] in addition to placing new hand-washing stations throughout the city.[23] In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that the Red Cross and the city will work in conjunction to open up 6,000 new beds for the homeless at recreation centers.[24] Governor Newsom of California has received the most press for his efforts, having announced that one hundred fifty million dollars would be allocated to help the homeless population with expanded services, purchases of trailers, and leases of hotel rooms[25] and claiming that there are 4,305 hotel rooms available for local jurisdictions to source out to their homeless citizens.[26] All of these efforts are a good start, but they need to be mirrored on the national scale and implemented across the country. More funding needs to be provided to house the homeless and to keep already-existing shelters afloat. Public health outreach should also take to the streets to keep homeless Americans keep informed on how to stay safe and healthy in these dangerous times.[27] As a country, we all need to do what we can for those in our society who need it the most, lest we look back at this time down the road and regret not doing enough.



[1] Off. of Hous. & Urb. Dev., The 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress: Point-In-Time Estimates 8 (2020)

[2] See Homelessness & Health: What’s the Connection?, Nat’l Health Care for the Homeless Council (Feb. 2019)

[3] Michael Cousineau, Coronavirus could hit homeless hard, and that could hit everyone hard, The Conversation(Mar. 13, 2020),

[4] Thomas Fuller, Coronavirus Outbreak Has America’s Homeless at Risk of ‘Disaster’, N.Y. Times (Mar. 10, 2020),

[5] Id.

[6] Laura Romero, For America’s homeless, staying home during coronavirus outbreak is not an option, ABC News (Mar. 25, 2020),

[7] Jesse Gary, California’s first known COVID-19 homeless death, FOX KTVU (Mar. 18, 2020),

[8] Laura Romero & Sophie Tatum, NYC officials confirm 1st homeless death from coronavirus, ABC News (Mar. 25, 2020),

[9] Catherine Kim, During the Covid-19 pandemic, nowhere is safe for homeless people, Vox (Mar. 18, 2020)

[10] See Ctrs. for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): How to Protect Yourself (2020),

[11] Romero, supra note 6.

[12] See id.

[13] See Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): How to Protect Yourself (2020),

[14] See Cousineau, supra note 3.

[15] See id.

[16] Kim, supra note 9.

[17] Cousineau, supra note 3.

[18] KATU Staff, Portland hotel donates rooms to help homeless with coronavirus symptoms stay in quarantine, KATU 2 (Mar. 26, 2020),

[19] See Jeff Stein & Tracy Jan, Fears mount about impact of coronavirus on homeless, Wash. Post, Mar. 15, 2020,

[20] See id.

[21] See Marissa J. Lang, Justin Wm. Moyer & Nitasha Tiku, Cities struggle to protect vulnerable homeless populations as coronavirus spreads, Wash. Post, Mar. 20, 2020,

[22] Off. of Mayor London M. Breed, San Francisco Increases COVID-19 Protections for Homeless Residents and People Living in Single Room Occupancy Hotels(Mar. 9, 2020),

[23] Lang et. al., supra note 21.

[24] Don Thompson & John Antczak, California to spend $150M to protect homeless from coronavirus, FOX KTVU (Mar. 19, 2020),

[25] Id.

[26] See Benjamin Oreskes, Anita Chabria, & Doug Smith, Why a fight over homeless people could determine how much coronavirus hurts California, Los Angeles Times (Mar. 27, 2020),

[27] See Jaboa Lake, Lawmakers Must Include Homeless Individuals and Families in Coronavirus Responses, Ctr. for American Progress (Mar. 18, 2020),