March 24, 2020

Responding to the Coronavirus: Preventing Homelessness to Stay at Home

New York City unfortunately is now the epicenter of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in the United States and rushing to respond to the crisis. This week, we have been urged to “stay at home,” but complying with that directive comes with the prerequisite of having a home.

The Partnership for the Homeless, for 38 years, has been committed to preventing homelessness and bringing stability of home back into people’s lives. Yet, in these incredibly uncertain times, the global pandemic is fostering formidable challenges that are testing all of us.

We remain steadfast in our support. We may be working remotely, but our services and support are unwavering: The Partnership for the Homeless is working harder than ever to ensure that our most vulnerable neighbors stay safe and stay in homes.

In response to the pandemic and our city’s shutdown, our efforts are focused on preventing heightened exposure to the virus of New Yorkers experiencing, at risk of, or recovering from homelessness, stopping evictions and homelessness for the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers losing their livelihoods, and preventing emotional distress for low-income families and individuals throughout the city.

Approximately 65,000 of our fellow city residents do not have stable housing. Indeed, for the estimated 3,500 city residents living on our streets and the more than 60,000, including 22,000 children, in shelters across the five boroughs, “physical distancing” is an unattainable luxury. For many, particularly people sleeping on the streets or in congregate and crowded settings, sleeping, eating, and bathing come with the type of social proximity that the rest of us are being told to avoid.

Our fellow New Yorkers sleeping on city streets lack reliable access to handwashing and sanitary facilities (particularly now that so many businesses have closed down), as well as food and other means of survival. Now that emergency food programs cannot provide meals in congregate settings, those who typically frequent soup kitchens must rely on take-out options and eat on the street.

Even the coins normally provided by passersby have all but stopped as many people stay home and those who are outside dutifully give others a wide berth. And, many of those who are experiencing homelessness already are confronting underlying medical conditions and a lack of access to health care.

We need our Federal, State, and City governments to step in now as they have never done before.

The lack of safe, affordable housing is the primary reason people experiencing homelessness are at heightened risk. In the near-term, all efforts must be made to safeguard people experiencing homelessness in available apartments. As the city rebuilds in the wake of the pandemic, increasing the supply of affordable housing to safeguard all city residents into the future should be a key component of any recovery plan.

Tests must immediately be made available to all of those living and working in congregate settings, such as homeless shelters, to quickly identify and provide care and treatment to those with COVID-19, while simultaneously curtailing the spread and safeguarding the well-being of other residents and staff.

If there is any hope of keeping entire shelter populations from falling ill, staff must be able to identify which residents—and staff—need immediate treatment to slow the spread of the virus. Now that testing is more available in our city, it must immediately be deployed at all homeless shelters. Similarly, shelter staff and residents must be prioritized for access to masks and other protective clothes and equipment as adequate supplies become available.

For many low- and medium-income workers and independent contractors, particularly in the retail and services sectors, working from home is not an option; staying home means being laid off and losing one’s entire income. Approximately 43% of low-wage workers have savings of less than $500, and less than 50% receive vacation time, which only acts as a short-term solution for lost wages. Even by the last weekend in March, unemployment was spiraling. Effectively, hundreds of thousands of city households are set to fall into arrears as early as April.

While the eviction moratorium enacted by New York State is vital for saving lives in the months ahead, the city will be hit by a tsunami of evictions unless emergency Federal, State and City measures are enacted immediately to replace lost income to individuals, subsidize small business and nonprofits, and provide increased funding for eviction prevention programs.

We urge all levels of government to build an emergency response that will focus on putting money into the hands of precarious workers—low-wage, gig-economy, immigrant, and undocumented—who will lose their homes without immediate, lasting support. Help people to pay down their rent and utility arrears before accruals become unsurmountable. Help nonprofit organizations like The Partnership to do what we all do best: identify people who are moving rapidly toward homelessness and provide them with the financial support to remain stable and in their homes. Given that 78% of American workers live paycheck-to-paycheck, this support needs to flow now; authorizing support for April will not be soon enough.

Finally, we are all encountering unbearable strain on our resolve. As noted by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, “the stress, the anxiety, the emotions that are provoked by this crisis are truly significant, and people are struggling with the emotions as much as they are struggling with the economics.”

We recognize that the weeks and months ahead will test us like never before as we adjust to this new normal. While most of us are now isolating ourselves in our homes, many others are struggling to find safe spaces.

Like other organizations, The Partnership’s staff and operations have now shifted to remote access and are committed to connecting with those who need us most: our mental health and emotional well-being program is now offered to all clients via phone and video calls.

We continue to offer our clients the same level of care and support that we always have. Our team is working regular business hours—daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.—and proactively contacting all clients to monitor health and other needs and provide needed services.

You may email info@pfth.org or call 212.645.3444 ext. 2237. We are here for you, New York!

If you want the most updated information about the unfolding crisis, you should text COVID to 692-692 or call the New York State Department of Health’s coronavirus hotline at 1-888-364-3065, visit the Department of Health’s website, or download the NYC Notify app.