While homelessness has a long history in New York, today, in conjunction with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unlike anything we have ever seen. The scale and persistence of the issue, as well as the consequences and trauma faced by those experiencing homelessness, is unparalleled by any time in American history. More New Yorkers are staying in shelters than ever before and for longer periods of time; It is of the utmost importance that those experiencing homelessness receive priority care, compassion, and assistance throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Experiencing homelessness is a trauma that is inextricably interwoven into countless other traumas including, but not limited to, mass incarceration; sexual violence; substance use disorder; mental illness; homophobia and transphobia; and white supremacy and systemic racism. Homelessness is on the rise in New York City, and with the recent economic volatility due to the pandemic, there is an uncertainty looming over sheltered individuals, unsheltered individuals, and individuals on the brink of homelessness. As social workers, it is our responsibility to prioritize the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society in order to empower and protect everyone. We must start with individuals experiencing homelessness.
Culhane et al. (2013) paint a picture of modern homelessness: “Homelessness in its contemporary form has been an issue since the early 1980s when, cast against a backdrop of a recession, the U.S. public became aware of a ‘new’ homeless population comprised mainly of young and minority adults” (p. 228). Data from the 2018 New York City Youth Count tells us that the vast majority of youth experiencing homelessness identify as Black or Hispanic, with only a small portion of counted youth identifying as white. Furthermore, parenting youth represent approximately one third of all youth counted in the city’s shelter systems, with children of parenting youth accounting for closer to 40% of the total youth count (City of New York, n.d.; City of New York, 2019). In this time of economic volatility and financial uncertainty, we must consider the future impact of COVID-19 on New Yorkers currently, formerly, or on the brink of experiencing homelessness.
In September 2020, 57,252 people slept in New York City’s shelter system each night and, in January of 2019, over 63,800 people slept in shelter each night (Coalition for the Homeless [CFTH], n.d.). These numbers can be broken down into families and single adults, with the vast majority of those in shelter consisting of families. For instance, in September, approximately 19,891 of the individuals sleeping in shelter were single adults. Meanwhile, adults in families added roughly 18,616 individuals, while children sleeping in New York City’s shelter system amounted to approximately 18,745 (CFTH, 2020). Families with children fleeing from situations of domestic violence account for approximately 30% of families living in New York City shelters, demonstrating that sexual violence and homelessness are connected in devastating ways. In fact, domestic violence is the number one reason that families with children – a survivor and their children – experience homelessness. (Routhier, 2016). As of December 2020, the average length of stay for a family living in the city’s shelter system was 512 days, an all time high, while the average length of time for a single adult to reside in shelter was 431 days (CFTH, 2020; New York City Mayor’s Office of Operations, 2021).
While these numbers are staggering, they do not account for the entire year, nor do they account for unique individuals. When looking at unique persons entering the New York City shelter system, that number more than doubles, amounting to 132,660 for 2019. The 2020 point-in-time count estimated that there were roughly 3,857 individuals living unsheltered throughout the five boroughs, which was a 7% increase from the previous year’s count (City of New York, n.d.). It must be mentioned that this is an estimate, and there is no absolute data for the number of individuals who sleep unsheltered throughout New York City each night. Individuals experiencing street homelessness may add thousands to the total number of New Yorkers experiencing homelessness (CFTH, 2021).
Homelessness, much like the COVID-19 pandemic, does not impact all New Yorkers equally. Looking at the data, it is clear that homelessness disproportionately impacts marginalized and vulnerable communities. Black and brown individuals account for 86% of single adults experiencing homelessness, while white individuals account for only 10%, and roughly 96% of families experiencing homelessness are families of color (Routhier, 2020). Routhier (2020) further elaborates on this racial disparity when stating that “homelessness is unequivocally an issue of racial justice. The disparity between the rates of homelessness among people of color and White New Yorkers is enormous. In reality, homelessness is rare among White New Yorkers” (p. 22). Racist housing policies, employment opportunities, income disparities, mass incarceration, and the disproportionate amount of poverty in communities of color are only some of the reasons for the racial disparities in homelessness. Among those experiencing homelessness, those with marginalized identities such as individuals with disabilities, individuals with severe mental health conditions, individuals with chronic health conditions, trauma survivors, and formerly incarcerated individuals, are overrepresented and experience higher rates of homelessness as well. Sheltered and unsheltered individuals experiencing homelessness are significantly more at risk for contracting COVID-19 and, due to the correlation between homelessness and chronic health conditions and disabilities, individuals who contract the virus are at risk for severe complications and consequences (Lima et al., 2020). Shelly Nortz, of Coalition for the Homeless, when delivering a moving testimony advocating for homeless New Yorkers in May of 2020, pleaded for action and emphasized how COVID-19 and homelessness potentially conjoin in disastrous ways: “the lack of access to safe private spaces for homeless people has exacerbated transmission, hospitalization, and deaths among this vulnerable group of individuals and families, with those living in congregate shelters finding themselves to be at particularly high risk” (Nortz, 2020, para. 3). With living conditions in which social distancing is nearly impossible; restricted access to mental health care and proper medical care; and lack of adequate cleaning supplies, New Yorkers experiencing homelessness are not given the opportunity to take preventative action against COVID-19.
The National Association of Social Workers [NASW] code of ethics calls upon social workers to “help people in need,” “address social problems,” “challenge social injustice,” and “respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person” (NASW, n.d.). It is our duty as social work professionals and, further, as humans, to prioritize the health and needs of marginalized members of our communities. I call upon my fellow social workers to center New Yorkers experiencing homelessness and to uplift and amplify their demands throughout COVID-19 and beyond. The inability for all individuals experiencing homelessness to access safe rooms in order to follow guidelines and protocol set forth by the city and the nation’s leading experts on COVID-19 is unforgivable. It demonstrates the ways in which racism, white supremacy, privilege, and power have infiltrated the issues facing homeless families and individuals as they are confronted with the choice of risking contracting COVID-19 in overcrowded shelters or facing nights outdoors to achieve social distancing guidelines. For the vast majority of individuals experiencing homelessness with at least one disability, the consequences of these choices could be fatal.
The pandemic has affected each of us. In order to recover as a city and as a community, we must come together and understand that one person’s suffering is all of our suffering. Social workers, it is our responsibility to be at the front of this movement, reminding people of the values we serve daily.
City of New York. (2019). New York City youth count 2018. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/cidi/downloads/pdfs/NYC-Youth-Count-Findings-2018.pdf
City of New York. (n.d.). New York City HOPE 2020 results. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/dhs/downloads/pdf/hope-2020-results.pdf
Coalition for the Homeless. (2021, February). Basic facts about homelessness: New York City. Retrieved February 27, 2021, from https://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/basic-facts-about-homelessness-new-york-city/
Coalition for the Homeless. (2020). New York City homeless municipal shelter population, 1983-present. https://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/NYCHomelessShelterPopulation-Worksheet1983-Present.pdf
Coalition for the Homeless. (n.d). Facts about homelessness. Retrieved November 28, 2020, from https://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/facts-about-homelessness/
Culhane, D.P., Metraux, S., Byrne, T., Stino, M. and Bainbridge, J. (2013), The age structure of contemporary homelessness: Evidence and implications for public policy. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 13(1), 228-244. https://doi.org/10.1111/asap.12004
Lima, N. N., Souza, R. I., Feitosa, P. W., Moreira, J. L., Silva, C. G., & Neto, M. L. (2020). People experiencing homelessness: Their potential exposure to COVID-19. Psychiatry Research, 288(112945), 1-2. https://doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2020.112945
National Association of Social Workers. (n.d.) Read the Code of Ethics. https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English
New York City Mayor’s Office of Operations. (2021, January). Mayor’s management report: Preliminary fiscal 2021. City of New York. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/operations/downloads/pdf/pmmr2021/2021_pmmr.pdf
Nortz, S. (2020, May 18). Testimony on the disparate impact of COVID-19 on homeless people in New York City before the NYS Legislature prepared by Shelly Nortz, Deputy Executive Director for Policy Coalition for the Homeless. Coalition for the Homeless. https://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/COVID-19TestimonyMay182020.pdf
Routhier, G. (2020). State of the homeless 2020: Governor and mayor to blame as New York enters fifth decade of homelessness crisis. Coalition for the Homeless. https://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/StateofTheHomeless2020.pdf