Again and again we see how the rolling tragedy that hit the entire country hit the most vulnerable among us the hardest.
There are lessons here. Some areas responded to the crisis by offering hotel rooms to people in need—and it worked. “What the pandemic has showed us is that individual rooms are healthier and safer,” an attorney who has represented people living in encampments told the Orange County Register.
“The pandemic has been incredibly hard on everybody for so many reasons. But in some ways, it’s really fast-tracked things that we thought would take five, 10 years to get the funding and intention for,” the director of Housing Solutions Tulsa in Oklahoma told NPR. A provider in Bethesda, Maryland, said some people who had been unwilling to accept assistance did so because of the pandemic, and got permanent housing.
So with homelessness as with unemployment benefits and direct payments, the pandemic has highlighted the fact that building a safety net can work. But if that lesson doesn’t carry forward, at a minimum through the entire recovery, disaster is coming.
The pandemic has dramatically increased unemployment, leaving many people in serious danger of eviction, protected only temporarily by eviction moratorium policies—so whatever has happened with homelessness during the pandemic, there’s a huge threat looming when the nation gets to some kind of new “normal.”
While the states with the highest homelessness rates have been clustered in the northeast and on the west coast, the danger signs for the post-coronavirus period are spread out around the country: The cities with the most eviction filings during the pandemic and the states with the highest unemployment rates are all over the place. And we know that some of these areas are not going to embrace state-level policies that help prevent homelessness and support people who are struggling. The list of cities with the highest eviction filings during COVID-19—the top five are Phoenix, Arizona; Houston, Texas; Memphis, Tennessee; Fort Worth, Texas; and Columbus, Ohio—is a preliminary map of places where a lot of people are in trouble and their local governments are not going to protect them.
The CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan have shown us that the government can really help lift people up, even as the coronavirus pandemic has shown us how vulnerable so many people in the U.S. are, and how unequally distributed the pain and suffering of any shock to the system will be. We have a chance to take what we’ve learned in the past year and come out stronger, with a better and more moral set of policy and cultural priorities. But if we don’t take that chance, this past year of suffering will define us for years.