By Karen Santilli & Jack McConnell
We are all grappling with a challenge the likes of which no one living has ever seen. Governors across the country — including Gov. Gina Raimondo — and public health leaders like Crossroads RI board member Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott have carefully managed the rapidly evolving crisis.
Their message to stay home and keep social distance seems to have been heard by Rhode Islanders. While we were one of the first states on the East Coast to confirm an infection, our reported rate of spread is lower than our neighboring states and we haven’t seen reports of widespread hotspots.
That’s good news, but it’s naïve to assume we will remain so lucky, especially if we don’t take more direct and immediate steps to address the housing challenges of our most vulnerable populations.
Unfortunately, individuals and families experiencing homelessness are at an increased risk of COVID-19. Many already suffer from multiple chronic health conditions. Others have weakened immune systems and limited access to health care. And it can be difficult to stay home, keep social distance, and wash your hands without a place to call home.
In cooperation with our partners and the state, Crossroads and all other providers have taken proactive measures early on to prepare and help reduce the spread of COVID-19. We’ve put plans in place to isolate anyone who shows sign of infection and identified shelter space to accommodate clients with mild respiratory symptoms who do not require hospital care.
These are necessary precautions and in-line with recommendations by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Centers for Disease Control. But they’re Band-Aids. Even with the best precautions in place, organizations that provide emergency shelter are already highly vulnerable to an outbreak and our systems are near capacity. As local unemployment claims skyrocket, Crossroads and other providers are bracing for an increase in demand.
But increasing shelter capacity is not a viable answer. The only proven solution to homelessness is housing.
During normal times, investments in housing have proven to reduce public health-care expenditures and improve health outcomes. But these aren’t normal times. Right now, the need is even more urgent: Providing homeless Rhode Islanders with access to rapid housing could be the difference between managing our curve or creating a hot zone for infection.
We can’t do this alone. States need federal taxpayer dollars as a part of the stimulus package to provide housing subsidies and direct cash for families and individuals facing uncertainty with their housing.
Vouchers and subsidies also need to come with funding for support services to help individuals and families who have been economically impacted by COVID-19 recover. These supports include Housing First case management, job training, child-care support, and access to health care.
Governor Raimondo has reassured tenants that no new evictions will process any time before mid-April because courts are closed, but we need a more explicit moratorium on evictions to ensure that people have a place to recover economically, keep socially distant, and adhere with directives to avoid large gatherings during this immediate health response.
These are all measures that need to be a part of the immediate crisis response, but there is also an opportunity to use this moment to strengthen our resiliency for whatever the next crisis is.
Whether it’s a major weather emergency, another public health crisis, or a significant economic catastrophe, widespread access to affordable, safe, and secure housing will be mission critical to our state’s response.
The administration and General Assembly must work together to preserve the proposed funding for housing and consider reforms to the original proposal that create more flexibility for investments in low-income and no-income housing.
The bumper sticker mantra among housing advocates across the country is that “housing is health care.” That’s never been more accurate than right now.
Article available at providencejournal.com