Over the last couple of weeks, we have had to adapt to a new reality in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. We’re trying to figure out how to work, go to school, and stay connected with our loved ones while remaining in our homes. But even during these unprecedented times, we cannot afford to forget about the people in our community who do not have homes of their own. At the time of this writing, we have not seen a confirmed or presumptive positive case of COVID-19 within Massachusetts’ individual and family shelter systems. It is only a matter of time.
A large percentage of individuals experiencing homelessness are particularly and acutely vulnerable to high morbidity rates of the new coronavirus. The challenges to reducing the rapid spread of the virus among our unhoused neighbors are not insurmountable and solutions largely rest in our hands.
Over the past month, municipal leaders and homeless service providers throughout the Commonwealth have been preparing for the likelihood that the COVID-19 outbreak across the shelter system will be swift. The already overburdened system is bracing for the likely tidal wave of new individuals and families seeking shelter because of the severe financial hardship associated with the spike in unemployment. Unchecked, this increase would both put unprecedented pressure on the shelter system and exacerbate the COVID-19 outbreak.
Curbing the tide requires that we act immediately.
In order to reduce the rapid transmission of COVID-19, it is paramount that we relieve pressure on shelters. The system is at capacity, and, in addition to doubling down on housing search services and the longer-term production of housing for those with extremely low income, we must make the current inventory less concentrated until the pandemic has subsided.
The Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance is working with the Mass Care Task Force at the State Emergency Operating Center to identify potential quarantine or respite shelter sites across the Commonwealth. Making available gymnasiums and empty dormitories would dramatically increase the inventory and provide necessary levels of social distancing.
We all benefit from the exceptional leadership modeled by Tufts University and other institutions making available their campuses to reduce the pressure on the health care system. It will likely be necessary for policy makers and municipal leaders to encourage replication of this model by others as well.
We also need to double down on relief upstream of the shelter system, and two immediate opportunities to provide this relief are in the hands of legislators and state agencies.
Passing House Bill 4935 would halt evictions, foreclosures, and related legal proceedings in the Commonwealth for the duration of the COVID-19 state of emergency. It’s necessary to pass this legislation in tandem with a bill that relieves the immediate financial burden, particularly among small private landlords. Forestalling an eviction could directly impact landlords’ ability to pay their mortgage, which perpetuates the cycle of eviction and foreclosure.
In order to prevent the spike of evictions once a moratorium is over, we must pursue solutions that are further upstream. The Residential Assistance for Families in Transition line item that provides emergency funding for families in crisis needs to be significantly expanded and made more flexible. Without more RAFT available funding, families will cascade into homelessness. The expense associated with sheltering these families and eventually transitioning them out of homelessness would undoubtedly dwarf a temporary increase in RAFT funding.
Additionally, while families should complete the online pre-application for RAFT, the Department of Housing and Community Development needs to create waivers for eligibility documentation during the period when regional offices are closed to in-person client intakes.
As we practice social distancing, we must think about how instructions to stay at home are impossible for individuals who are living on the streets or in crowded shelters. We must refuse to distance ourselves from the solutions needed by our neighbors who are suffering the most.
Among housing service providers, a common refrain is that “housing is health care.” The current pandemic is proving that this is as true now as it has always been.
Matt Pritchard is president and executive director of HomeStart, Inc.
Have a point of view about this? Write a letter to the editor; we’ll publish a select few. (We’re experimenting with alternatives to the comment section for creating online conversation at Globe Opinion over the next month; you can let us know what you think of our experiments here.)