Expert Pitch
University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV)

Homelessness and COVID-19

States across the country passed moratoriums on evictions to combat housing insecurity as the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear earlier this year.

As the pandemic took hold, the country’s unemployment rate skyrocketed to its highest-ever level since the Great Depression, overwhelming states with a surge of claims. Meanwhile, a growing affordable housing problem loomed large in the background.

Taken together, it’s a recipe for a new crisis: a rise in the number of people experiencing homelessness, says Nicholas Barr, assistant professor of social work at UNLV.

“Until we address the country’s lack of affordable housing, and pay people decent wages, we’re going to see an increase in homelessness and it’s going to be disproportionately among those who are already marginalized, including racial and ethnic minorities,” says Barr.

The data isn’t yet clear, but as eviction moratoriums expire across the country, Barr expects to see more and more people become newly homeless - adding to a system that was already overburdened when jobless rates were low and the U.S. economy was strong.

To prevent it, and as a first step, Barr suggests that states consider extending eviction moratoriums. Here, Barr explains why that’s necessary, the scope of the homelessness problem, how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated it, and offers solutions that communities should consider.

What do we have to consider when defining homelessness?

Individuals experiencing homelessness are not a monolithic group. Even though it’s easy for people to talk about them in that way, it’s really several distinct groups with different needs. I think people have a tendency to incorrectly view homeless individuals as chronically street-based, severely mentally ill, and with substance abuse problems.

While that certainly describes some individuals who are homeless and who have a mix of untreated mental health problems, substance use, and physical health problems, chronically homeless individuals are a relatively small proportion and not representative of all homeless people. Those individuals tend to have needs that are usually met through permanent supportive housing, where they are housed with their own room and with access to social services and an on-site wraparound treatment team.

More common, however, are people working on the margins. They’re economically insecure — working one or several jobs – and they suffer greatly when an unexpected event happens. For example, if their car breaks down or they have a big surprise bill, they can’t make their rent. A recent study revealed that nearly 40% of Americans wouldn’t be able to meet a $400 emergency expense. These are your neighbors.

Then you have to consider families — families with children, who may have a dual-parent household, single-parent household — who are economically on the margins. They might not be able to make rent, so instead they may start staying with friends, couch surfing, bouncing around in this sort of gray area that often isn’t captured. Eventually, they may burn out their relationships, especially in the current context where people are concerned about the spread of COVID-19.

Is there an expected increase in the number of people/families who might now, or in the near future, face homelessness as a result of job or income loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic? Who is most in danger of facing homelessness?

I think it’s too early to say definitively and it’s too early for good data. But there is some emerging evidence that as soon as the eviction moratorium that was put into place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic expires, numbers are going to go up.

The people who are most in danger of becoming newly homeless are those who have lost their jobs — and that’s a lot of people here in the Vegas Valley — and those who do not have access to unemployment support.

It’s also exacerbated by the fact that Las Vegas has few affordable housing options. Data from the National Low Income Housing Association shows that of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S., extremely low-income renters face the most severe shortages in Las Vegas and Austin, Texas, with 14 affordable and available rental homes for every 100 extremely low-income renter households.

That’s really not great, and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, when unemployment was low in the Valley.

Another recent report, also from the National Low Income Housing Association, revealed that you can’t afford the cost of an average, two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the U.S. when you make the federal minimum wage.

Are certain areas of the country more vulnerable to rising homelessness?

We know homelessness in general is on the rise nationally according to the last three years of the national homelessness Point-in-Time Count. Rising numbers are concentrated particularly in  Western cities including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Seattle. It’s not 100% clear why that’s the case. Some of these places have better benefits, better weather, the sparkle of possibility - but it’s not really clear.

So current capacity in these hot spots is already insufficient, and, prior to the current health crisis, cities have been trying to push people into shelters. But, this has created another problem because shelters are ideal conditions to foment the spread of COVID.

How has COVID exacerbated issues that people experiencing homelessness face?

The current economic crisis means fewer people can escape homelessness through employment. We also know that Black and Latinx people are overrepresented among those experiencing homelessness, and they’re also overrepresented among those experiencing the worst health effects of COVID-19.

People who are on the cusp of homelessness, or who are homeless, also are more likely to have underlying health conditions. They may not be able to afford or have access to healthy food options, they may not have access to affordable health care, and as such they’re less likely to be able to adopt healthy behaviors. It’s nearly impossible to prioritize exercise and eating well when you’re working two jobs and trying to keep a roof over your head. These underlying disparities also make them more susceptible to negative disease progression if they’re infected with COVID-19.

Should states consider extending eviction moratorium orders?

Yes. Nobody’s situation improves when they’re unsheltered. Being unsheltered makes your situation worse.

I understand that landlords need to earn income too. I understand why, from a business perspective, it makes sense for a bank or a giant property management company to kick people out and try to get the next people in. But from a social perspective, that’s not helpful. They too will experience downstream consequences of an unstable housing market, with tons of people unemployed or under-employed and homeless.

That’s not good for a city, that’s not good for property values. People have to think downstream a little bit. Our No. 1 priority should be preventing people from becoming homeless. Once they become homeless for the first time, it starts a negative cascade. It’s hard to escape from that system.

I think we should be doing everything we can to keep people in their housing, but if that’s not possible, we should do everything we can to get them in temporary housing.

Are there any big misconceptions around homelessness that you hear about often?

Mental illness doesn’t cause homelessness — not having housing causes homelessness. If you put those two together then you have a bigger problem. But treating everyone’s mental illness would not alone solve the country’s homelessness problem.

Homelessness also isn’t a drug issue. Many people use alcohol and drugs in their homes. Obviously, I’m not advocating drug use, but drug use alone also doesn’t cause homelessness.

What do communities need to do to solve homelessness?

Homelessness is an economic problem — it’s a result of a lack of affordable housing and a decent income for working class people. If we can find a way to address these two issues — incentivize developers to build affordable housing, and pay people a living wage — we could see changes.

It’s a regional issue, so what’s going to work in Nebraska is going to be different from what’s going to work in California, and it’s going to require the efforts of individuals who understand the nuances of the problems in those particular places. In crowded metropolises like Los Angeles or Seattle, you’re not going to be able to house people if you only build single-family homes. If you want to house people, you cannot build that way anymore. Communities have to incentivize developers and require them to build affordable housing, but that takes political will.

It’s also critical for local communities to champion people with lived experience. We have students on UNLV’s campus, for example, who were in foster care and who experienced homelessness, but they’re pursuing scholarship and education. Let’s center their voices — let’s lift them up! They know what they’re talking about so let’s put them front and center.

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