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The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the homeless community and homelessness crisis, including posing unique health risks to the homeless population and spurring a likely increase in homelessness due to job losses.
“People experiencing homelessness are at enormous risk of exposure to the coronavirus, due to inability to self-isolate, as evidenced by outbreaks in congregate shelters,” says Marybeth Shinn, Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair and professor of human, organizational and community development at Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development. “With the cold weather coming, service providers are scrambling to provide food, shelter and outreach services safely, and to use rental assistance to get people into housing.”
Shinn also explains that while eviction moratoriums imposed during the pandemic work to delay evictions, they do not prevent them. Arrears for rent, utilities and fees continue to accumulate when the moratorium ends, and landlords can continue to charge late fees for late payments. On the one hand, moratoriums will help keep many renters in their homes at a time when the alternatives, such as crowding in with friends and relatives or even becoming homeless, puts people’s health at risk. At the same time, landlords, especially small landlords, are also suffering. Landlords often have mortgages as well as other expenses to pay, relying on rental income to do so.
In her new book with Abt Associates researcher Jill Khadduri, In the Midst of Plenty: Homelessness and What to Do About It, Shinn argues that homelessness is not a result of personal failure, but rather societal failure, as we have the knowledge and resources to end homelessness but lack the political will. As an immediate step during the pandemic, Shinn advises that Congress needs to enact relief for tenants and landlords, as well as reinstate weekly supplements to unemployment benefits to help people stay current on rent.