Experiencing homelessness is absolutely incompatible with the current public health crisis we are in. You can’t “stay home” when you don’t have one. Further, living in congregate shelter facilities or encampments can increase exposure to and the spread of COVID-19. The crisis of homelessness has been exacerbated by this pandemic and it seems only to be getting worse.
The COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project estimates that over 400,000 people in Colorado could face eviction as moratoria expire and extended unemployment benefits cease. Just recently, the Aspen Institute reported that 190,000-259,000 households are at risk of eviction, which equates to 436,000-596,000 people entering the cycle of homelessness. Where will these people go? Our shelter systems across the state, stretched thin prior to the pandemic, are having to operate at reduced capacity because of physical distancing requirements and loss of staff and volunteers. Many say they are having to turn people away because of reduced capacity and the inability to access timely testing for COVID-19. Testing is needed to prevent carriers from coming in and potentially infecting other guests. While motels/hotels have been acquired in some areas of the state for people to recover in or to use as a protective action from the virus, many communities don’t have access to these resources or other alternative shelter options, leaving thousands of individuals and families with no options if they lose their homes.
Community Solutions reports that there is likely to be a 40-45% increase in homelessness because of the eviction crisis and unemployment issues, which could result in 4,000-13,500 additional people with immediate shelter needs or being forced to try to survive outside. Across the state, we are seeing increased street camping especially in our higher-population areas like Denver and Colorado Springs because people are afraid to access shelters and are left with no housing options. The disparate impact on this pending eviction and homelessness crisis on communities of color and families with children cannot be ignored in a time where we are finally having honest conversations about the systems of racism and elitism that forced these communities to bear the burden of housing instability and homelessness at much higher rates than the white population.
We need our elected officials to act now to avert an even more massive homelessness crisis than we are currently experiencing. The governor of Colorado should take every action available to him to reduce evictions for hundreds of thousands of Coloradans. That should include an eviction and mortgage forbearance for landlords; mandatory repayment agreements between landlords and tenants, and further investments in eviction prevention and rental assistance funds.
It is also time for Colorado as a state to develop a strategy to address homelessness and provide the critical resources needed to resolve it for thousands of individuals and families. Three months ago, Congress passed the HEROES Act, which provided, among other important things, expanded resources for rental ($100 billion) and mortgage ($75 billion) assistance, greater investment in the homelessness response and prevention system ($11.5 billion), and extended unemployment benefits. It is unconscionable that the Senate leadership and the Trump administration refused to negotiate this package on behalf of the American people and instead issued ineffective and unworkable executive orders that do almost nothing to address the immediate needs of our communities. Congress, and more specifically, the Senate, needs to immediately get back to work to provide relief and support to millions of individuals and families facing housing instability and homelessness.
Without a doubt, COVID-19 has presented our state, our nation, and our world with unfathomable challenges for the health and safety of people everywhere. Everything requires adjustments, thoughtful and evolving responses, and adaptations to a “new normal.” We cannot allow, nor should we accept, a quadrupling of homelessness as part of that new normal.
Safe, stable housing is the foundation on which all other life factors depend, and it is the only way to protect oneself from the dangers of COVID-19. Ensuring access to housing, protecting housing stability, and resolving homelessness should be a top policy and moral imperative at all levels of government.
Cathy Alderman is chief communications and policy officer for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.