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Dusk at the Dale Hall Tower on the University of Oklahoma's campus at Norman, Okla. As of October 26, Oklahoma has recorded 11,529 cases over the last 7 days, or a rate of 41.8 per 100,000 (Matt_Herndon/Getty Images)

COVID-19: A Force Multiplier for Poverty and Homelessness?

When the pandemic started, I had no illusions about the economic chaos that would ensue.


Closing entire sectors of the economy — including lucrative industries like travel and entertainment — would not be good for the United States or the world. I justified it as a necessary evil, especially in the early days of the pandemic when the virus had just been identified and no cures or treatments were available.


I’m proud of how far we’ve come as a world in trusting science and adopting common-sense practices to curb the spread. The problem is that the pandemic has exacerbated an economic divide in which marginalized groups are bearing the brunt. While I feel sad and inconvenienced that I can’t go shopping, it’s nothing compared to a person who was let go from their retail job because of the world’s “new normal.”


It was around August or September or so when I started noticing something very troubling. Every day, as I would drive around town running my daily errands, I would see an increased number of panhandlers asking for food, money, or whatever else that could help. Yet, the people I saw were not those facing long-term homelessness that you would see in the grittier parts of town. One day, I saw a woman dressed in business casual clothing holding a sign and panhandling for money. She was more well-dressed than me.


One day, I saw a woman dressed in business casual clothing holding a sign and panhandling for money. She was more well-dressed than me.

This happened again and again until I finally couldn't take it anymore when on one of my frequent thoroughfares, right next to a construction zone, a gentleman showed up with a sign that said he was recently homeless. What shocked me was the fact that he looked like he had just stepped out of work: a freshly shaved face, a clean shirt, neat-looking jeans. He must have been very recently removed from a life before the streets. It was difficult to be at the stoplight and think about him and all the other nameless faces he represented in the comfort of my car. I broke down in tears.


“What’s going on?” I wondered after my crying breakdown at the stoplight. “Where did all these people come from? What were their lives like before all of this had happened?”


I asked Sabra Boyd, a freelance journalist covering homelessness and child exploitation. Sabra’s no stranger to all of this, having experienced various gradations of homelessness herself — couch-surfing with her mom as a preteen, then later being kicked out of the house at age 14 once her family found more stable housing. Boyd still deals with a lot of trauma and anxiety regarding her experience of homelessness, and as the pandemic progresses, she is also seeing people around her lose their housing.


“With COVID, a lot of the entry-level service industry jobs that are easier to secure more quickly — working in a restaurant or retail, for example — have just disappeared. I have three friends who became homeless during COVID, and a lot of them have been dealing with scammers who make it difficult for them to find jobs,” Boyd told me.


 

COVID-19 has seemed to amplify homelessness, but not in the way one might expect. Although an eviction moratorium has been imposed by many communities, many people have living arrangements that are not subject to the moratorium. As a result, without a job or stable unemployment benefits, many people may be faced with different forms of homelessness — whether it’s asking to stay with a friend or family member or being out on the streets.


“Homelessness is a spectrum,” says Boyd. “There are people who couch-surf and that, in and of itself, can be dangerous. There’s a power dynamic — they might get sick of you staying there, or they might not be safe people to stay with. You really don’t have much agency — you’re not paying rent, and you can’t make any demands about living arrangements.”


There are people who couch-surf and that, in and of itself, can be dangerous. There’s a power dynamic — they might get sick of you staying there, or they might not be safe people to stay with. — Sabra Boyd, freelance writer covering homelessness

Despite the progress we've made and being able to slow the spread of COVID-19, one thing that has been happening since its earliest days is the job losses — furloughs, layoffs, workers getting their hours cut, workers quitting to avoid being exposed to COVID-19, and the like. In the early days of the pandemic, and even up to today, I would hear about long lines at our local state unemployment office. People would line up overnight to claim unemployment benefits, much like one might wait for tickets to a rock concert to be sold. Although the current unemployment rate is not as high as economists had feared — a 10% unemployment rate through the end of 2020 — things have not gotten that much better, with unemployment hovering around 8 or 9 percent. Instead, our entire country is suffering from a chronic economic problem that is costing Americans their entire livelihoods.



The pandemic has exacerbated the hardship experienced by two particular groups of people: one that is unemployed or underemployed that is completely struggling, economically, and perhaps even experiencing homelessness for the first time ever; and another, the essential workers who continue to remain relatively economically stable but feel overburdened by the unprecedented selflessness their work requires right now. The new “have-nots” are people who used to have regular jobs that are now experiencing various gradations of poverty and even facing the threat of homelessness. Many “haves” feel overburdened by a pandemic which is requiring them to put in more work than is humanly reasonable, but the alternative is a nonstarter — economic ruin and joblessness. “I haven’t been able to get unemployment for months,” I saw one person post on Reddit. “If I can’t figure this out, my two kids and I will soon be newly homeless.”


It doesn’t help that people have to pay a premium to do the things that keep them safe in the pandemic. Taking a bus costs a couple of dollars, but it exposes you to other people, which greatly increases the risk of COVID-19. That’s where having a car is useful, but of course, buying and maintaining a car is much more expensive. If you want to get groceries, you can wear a mask and go to the grocery store, but for a minimum purchase amount, you can do drive-thru pick up for free.