Houseless in a pandemic: How community “shows up” for their own to survive and thrive together

In the wake of COVID-19, local and state governments across the United States have implemented guidelines on social distancing and stay-at-home measures. However, people experiencing houselessness*, or at-risk of falling into houselessness due to the current economic downturn, are unable to adhere to these recommendations and community standards. In Los Angeles, home to the largest percentage of unsheltered people in the country, houseless individuals and grassroots advocates for the houseless are experiencing firsthand how the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities and further stigmatized the houseless population, highlighting the need for community inclusion and resilience for all.

“People may have a certain image in mind when they think of homelessness; however, it only takes one challenge for someone to fall into homelessness” shared Lizzy Paulson, former Director of Engagement and Strategic Initiatives at United Way.

A lack of affordable housing is the primary root cause of houselessness in the United States. In previous decades, people on the brink of houselessness largely relied on social support networks for temporary support. These “safety nets” functioned as reinforcements to recover from the shocks and stressors that initially made these groups vulnerable. As housing prices in the United States continue to rise and vacant properties remain inaccessible and unaffordable, the result is that vulnerable groups are pushed out of the market and onto the streets. The familial dynamics that once provided temporary relief are largely unavailable due to a collective awareness and shared burden of high rent cost paired with limited accessible vacancy. Looming in the background of this pandemic is an eviction crisis that could threaten as many as 120,000 households, with 184,000 children.

One of the major challenges in addressing houselessness is lack of reliability and accuracy of the population this issue touches. In Los Angeles, the organization LA Continuum of Care performs an annual “Point-in-Time” houseless count. Over the course of a few days, volunteers tally the individuals seen in makeshift shelters, tents, or vehicles. However, this measure doesn’t account for the number of people at risk of, or already falling into houselessness.

Staff in PPE conducting community outreach
Staff of the People Concern wear personal protective equipment to conduct community outreach safely. Photo courtesy of The People Concern.

“Before COVID-19 there were almost 60,000 people experiencing houselessness in Los Angeles County (according to the 2019 Homeless Count), but after the pandemic there will probably be many more,” explained Paulson. The latest count estimates that there are 66,433 people experiencing houselessness in Los Angeles but that number was collected before the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic could be felt or responded to through initiatives such as Project Roomkey, which leases unused hotel and motel rooms to provide emergency housing to the most at-risk individuals, rent freezes, and eviction moratoriums. The impacts of COVID-19 have been pervasive in communities across the United States and around the world. The pandemic has resulted in massive economic shifts that will continue to materialize in our communities and societies long after the virus is gone. The record highs in applications for unemployment insurance relief in 2020 are a single indicator of the insecure future that awaits the houselessness community, as well as low-income individuals and minority groups that are considered at-risk of falling into houselessness.

Short Term Innovations

Grassroots organizers have coalesced around the idea that houselessness is a community-derived issue and therefore, requires a community-led approach. Similar to previous economic crises, COVID-19 will have lasting ramifications. Individuals who were otherwise stable, might be at-risk of experiencing houselessness as a result of the pandemic.

Among the organizations taking a community-based approach is Hospitality Kitchen, a kitchen and community home run by the Catholic Workers organization in Skid Row, in Downtown LA. There, Matt Harper explained that “the heart of any meaningful work is relationships, particularly in service work.”

pots in a kitchen
Hospitality Kitchen’s soup kitchen, otherwise known as “Hippie Kitchen,” located in Los Angeles’s Skid Row. With a surrounding population of 10,000 houseless, poor, and marginally employed residents. Photo courtesy of Hospitality Kitchen.

The spread of COVID-19 in Los Angeles prompted civil society organizations which serve and support houseless individuals to rapidly re-work their infrastructure and community spaces to adhere to social-distancing guidelines. In the first weeks of the pandemic, Hospitality Kitchen and other organizations provided crucial support for an influx of individuals in connection to the pandemic. On any given day, the kitchen serves 500 to 1,000 people, but during the pandemic, that number has risen to provide about 2,000 meals a day. At the same time, Hospitality Kitchen has had to scale back its volunteer program and rely on direct support from its staff to help implement physical measures to ensure that community spaces remain safe and accessible. Simultaneously, interest in volunteering with civil society organizations to assist the houseless population has increased as a result of the pandemic, despite social-distancing measures and other recommended guidelines.

Hospitality Kitchen has found ways to host community liturgy, and maintain its community garden because “people deserve beauty, joy, and art. We try to create a space that is calming, a break from the concrete chaos of Skid Row,” shared Matt.

A tour of the beautiful Los Angeles Catholic Worker garden located in downtown Los Angeles.

Individuals experiencing houselessness during the coronavirus pandemic are not only vulnerable because of a lack of resources to shelter in place, but also because of the closure of communal public spaces. John Maceri, CEO of The People Concern, an organization which conducts outreach, provides services, and transitions individuals to long-term housing, said their staff surveyed their community to identify new challenges created by COVID-19. For example, the closure of public libraries created a barrier to access for individuals attempting to charge their phones or access the internet. In response, The People Concern implemented portable charging stations throughout its facility to meet the needs of their community.

People in masks with buckets
The People Concern Staff and Participants at the Project Roomkey site managed by the organization. Photo courtesy of The People Concern.

The People Concern operates as a part of Los Angeles’ Project Roomkey. While this program helps facilitate a transition into stable housing, the loss of public transport means that some individuals couldn’t travel to get basic necessities such as food and toiletries. To solve this issue, The People Concern launched a no-contact delivery service to bring non-perishables to its community. In spite of these challenges, Maceri said that overall, “the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated our ability to move people off the street, which gives us the opportunity to pivot towards permanent housing solutions.” The next test will be creating the physical resources, support systems, and housing stock to ensure that these solutions work.

For Carlos, the mission and work done by The People Concern’s Permanent Supportive Housing program, was the difference between him staying on the streets or having an opportunity to bounce forward to a more stable life. “I worked for 22 years. About 5 years ago I had an accident, lost my job, and I couldn’t afford to pay rent. I became homeless. I lived on the streets in Los Angeles for 3 years. The People Concern is a really good organization. They can help. If you do your part they will do their part to help you and get you what you need.”

People delivering food
The People Concern delivered no-contact non-perishables to its community members to combat food insecurity. Photo courtesy of The People Concern.

Long Term Resilience

Pete White, the executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN), an anti-poverty organization which works on multiple issues at the intersection of civil rights, gender, race, and houselessness, says policy recommendations and initiatives have to be rooted in the ideal: “nothing about us, without us.” Simply put, initiatives to confront the challenge of urban poverty in Los Angeles have to be driven and led by the community they serve.

Community-led development and research affords individuals agency and ownership, which creates trust between institutions, organizations, and the people they serve. Community trust is a prerequisite to accurate, transparent, and open assessments and surveys of conditions in low-income areas, which are the foundation of actionable change.

Economic development initiatives have to incorporate the voice of the community, as only individuals with lived-experience can evaluate whether or not a tool can be successfully implemented in granular detail. “Working in community, and with community,” as White suggests, means that those affected are not only the owners of data collected about them, but that they can leverage this information to bring about change that serves them.

While COVID-19 has brought on new challenges associated with the issues of houselessness and urban poverty, civil society organizations have demonstrated resilience, and continue to be a vital resource for vulnerable communities. Social distancing guidelines have limited in-person opportunities to engage through volunteering and service work, but there are still a multitude of ways to support the important work of these groups. Organizations on the forefront of these issues are still accepting physical and financial donations which will have a meaningful impact for their communities.

Lastly, it is up to individuals in and outside of the community to listen, and support public policy reforms and affordable housing initiatives to confront the systemic causes of houselessness. Civil society organizers we spoke with advocated to “be the person to write a letter, to show up to community meetings, and work towards a favorable solution for all.”

Person entering front door
A client of The People’s Concern entering their transitional housing accommodation. Photo courtesy of The People Concern.

*In efforts to accurately and dignifiedly represent people experiencing houselessness and the community groups that serve this population, we will use the term “houselessness” instead of “homelessness.” “Houselessness” is a term that has been adopted and is preferred by many people in Los Angeles who experience housing instability. “Home” is much more than a physical place – it can be used to represent community and social connectedness. We will use “houselessness” to provide recognition of those experiences and connections.

This is a project from the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center and the Digital Forensic Research Lab. 

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The Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center will reach one billion people with resilience solutions to climate change, migration, and security challenges by 2030. We will focus our efforts on individuals, communities, and a broad spectrum of governments and institutions to help them, and their constituencies and stakeholders, better prepare for, navigate, and recover from shocks and stresses. We will help build a more resilient world.

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Image: Mural on the Los Angeles Catholic Worker Hospitality Kitchen. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Catholic Worker.