This week marks the fifth week of sheltering in place, a practice that has and will continue to save lives. But some of our neighbors face a greater challenge: not having a home to shelter in.
Imagine if your only option to sleep inside overnight was a crowded shelter, an emergency situation even before this pandemic. In addition, the places you normally use to meet your daily needs have closed their doors, leaving you outside with almost no options. You have almost nowhere to turn to access resources such as bathrooms, clean drinking water, and handwashing sinks.
Now more than ever, people experiencing homelessness are struggling to survive. Homelessness is not something we can dismiss. Anyone can become homeless from loss of income due to the economic impacts of the pandemic. Those with the greatest risk of becoming homeless are those who also have a higher risk of COVID-19: people of color, Native Americans, immigrants, LGBTQ+, low income households, the elderly, and the disabled.
As Homeless Voices for Justice advocates, we know from personal experience that if you have no place to live, social distancing is next to impossible. We also know that a strong public health approach is needed to protect the lives of those both with and without housing. For people experiencing homelessness this approach must include access to safe shelter, medical care, and resources to meet daily needs. Meeting the needs of people experiencing homelessness will strengthen public health and better protect everyone from COVID-19.
Health experts state that decriminalizing homelessness increases overall public health. The American Medical Association’s official policy is to “support laws protecting the civil and human rights of people experiencing homelessness” and to “oppose laws and policies that criminalize individuals experiencing homelessness for carrying out life-sustaining activities conducted in public spaces … [i.e. eating, sitting or sleeping] when there is no alternative private space available.” In addition, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on responding to COVID-19 prioritizes a public health approach, not a criminal justice one.
In contrast, on April 1 and April 14, the Portland City Council held virtual meetings to discuss homelessness and the pandemic. During both of these meetings, a number of stigmatizing comments were made about homeless residents of the Bayside neighborhood that raised our concern as experts with lived experience.
We are concerned that these comments will lead to the criminalization of people who are doing what they must to survive. Yes, some people experiencing homelessness are participating in behaviors in public that would be done in private. We know that for everyone’s health we need safe spaces for people experiencing homelessness to spend daytime hours, connect with resources, and carry out daily activities. But where is someone supposed to go when they need to use the bathroom and all the public facilities are closed?
While it may be easy to blame the individual, we know the real answer is strong social supports. Portland can and must fill the void caused by the closure of public space by providing resources such as expanded overnight and day shelter, port-a-potties, and portable sinks. We know Portland can do more and, as a community, we must ensure it does so.
Since our founding 25 years ago, Homeless Voices for Justice has advocated for the clearest solutions to these issues: wraparound social services, stable and affordable housing, and an end to criminalizing homelessness.
Yet, over the same time period, affordable housing in Portland has decreased and more people have found themselves priced out or living on the streets. This pandemic makes clear that housing is healthcare.
To address the issues in Bayside, we are calling on Portland City Council to prioritize shelter and homeless services in the city’s COVID-19 response, and to make robust social services and affordable housing top priorities following this pandemic. Housing, not handcuffs, will solve homelessness in Portland.
Carolyn Silvius and Cheryl Harkins are advocates with Homeless Voices for Justice.