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Report looks into COVID-19’s impacts on people experiencing homelessness in US

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA and Boston University found that more than 21,000 of the nation’s adults experiencing homelessness could require hospitalization as the COVID-19 pandemic continues throughout the United States. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Phoebe Chen and Bernard Mendez

April 8, 2020 11:22 am

A report published by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA and Boston University shines light on the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic on the individuals experiencing homelessness in the United States.

Of the around 500,000 single adults experiencing homelessness nationwide, the researchers approximated more than 21,000 of them could require hospitalization with a death toll that could exceed 3,400 over the course of the pandemic.

In Los Angeles, their calculations suggest the hospitalization count could surpass 2,800 and the death toll could be more than 450. Efforts to temporarily house those experiencing homelessness won’t come without cost – the report estimated it could take more than $1.7 billion to comprehensively shelter and quarantine the more than 59,000 unsheltered individuals in LA with adequate social distancing.

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti announced at a press conference Friday $16 million was allocated to help fund shelters for people experiencing homelessness and $31 million would go to an Eviction Defense Program that would help prevent people from experiencing homelessness.

He also said 780 hotel and motel rooms were set aside Friday to house vulnerable populations who are experiencing homelessness like seniors experiencing homelessness who have not yet been diagnosed with COVID-19, but are most at risk.

Individuals experiencing homelessness suffer from an accelerated aging effect because of exposure to harsh conditions, making them more susceptible to the disease. An average individual experiencing homelessness typically has the health burdens and needs of someone 15 years older, said Randall Kuhn, a contributor to the report and assistant professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

“You hear about 80-year-olds being at extraordinarily high risk of dying from COVID-19,” Kuhn said. “That would be like 65 for a homeless person.”

The majority of people experiencing homelessness nationwide are over the age of 50, Kuhn said. Half the homeless population in LA falls in that age range, he added.

“The largest group of people in the homeless population are kind of late baby boomers … who have had this long history of homelessness and now tend to be 55 to 60,” he said.

Even under normal circumstances, individuals experiencing homelessness spend more time in public, are exposed to public surfaces and typically do not have access to soap or sanitizer, which are integral to combatting this virus, Kuhn added.

The findings come in light of a rise of COVID-19 infections among the population of people experiencing homelessness in LA. There are currently 10 confirmed COVID-19 cases among individuals experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles, including one suspected of being in a shelter while contagious, said Barbara Ferrer, the director of the LA County Department of Public Health, in a press conference Tuesday.

Shelters have been posed as a temporary solution for people experiencing homelessness because they can have access to screening and testing as well as basic needs, but they still pose a risk of transmission, Kuhn said.

Shelters for those experiencing homelessness often pack hundreds of people into a single room with little air and with high rates of people who are immunocompromised, said Dennis Culhane, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of the study.

“The shelters are certainly a sort of cauldron of risk for contracting the virus,” Culhane said.

Thomas Byrne, an assistant professor in the department of social welfare policy at Boston University and co-author of the study, said it is important for legislators to think creatively to find sources of accommodation, such as hotels, motels and dorm rooms, to house people experiencing homelessness during the crisis.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Friday to find hotels and motels in order to house individuals experiencing homelessness during the crisis.

For students experiencing housing insecurity, the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a volatile and dangerous situation, said Jessica Richards, a community health sciences graduate student at UCLA.

Homelessness changes on an hourly basis, making it difficult for students experiencing homelessness to find safe spaces, she said.

“The problem of being homeless or housing insecure is already a really volatile situation. And when you add a crisis like COVID-19 on top of that, you have the potential for really exacerbating an already bad problem.”

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Phoebe Chen
Bernard Mendez | News editor
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