The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we know it. Almost everyone has experienced some kind of disruption in their lives, whether due to job loss, inability to travel, or health concerns. However, some people have had a much harder time than others during the pandemic, especially the homeless population.
According to Michael Kiener, PhD, CRC, professor in the Myrtle E. and Earl E. Walker College of Health Professions and director of the rehabilitation counseling program at Maryville University, “the pandemic has added multiple stressors to our country’s homeless population. For example to embrace social distancing many shelters are reducing their beds by 50% making it more difficult to have any consistency in daily routines.
In addition typical places like libraries and restaurants, where people often go to for daily needs, are closed or have limited access. Thus making it more difficult remain clean, be protected from summer heat, and have access to information and or technology. Also because many non-homeless people are working from home and or self-quarantining people who are homeless have less ability to ask for money and or food.”
People experiencing homelessness are always among the most vulnerable in our society, but the pandemic has taken this vulnerability to new heights. Those who do not have reliable shelter also often do not have access to quality healthcare, reliable and healthy food, or the ability to self-isolate. The virus can quickly spread within communal living situations, exacerbating existing problems and contributing to the grim death toll.
The good news is that we don’t have to sit by and watch vulnerable populations suffer. You can help the homeless during the pandemic in several different ways. Here’s how.
Improve Access to Health Education & Treatment
In addition to the fact that people who are experiencing homelessness are more vulnerable to the virus, many people in this population also have very little access to proper health education and treatment options. Beyond this, many in the homeless population are also struggling with addiction and chronic health problems.
You can help by volunteering your time to bring healthcare and health education to people experiencing homelessness. Find an organization or shelter that needs volunteers and advocate for those who do not have the knowledge or ability to advocate for themselves. You can talk with people about their options, act as a health concierge or liaison, and help people get the care and support they need to become healthier, safer, and more stable.
“Evidence based programs that facilitate housing and employment will go a long way to establishing basic needs of shelter and safety. Counseling and case management services can help with managing mental health and life stressors. Many agencies employ rehabilitation counselors that have the skill set to work with individuals on their mental health and employment needs. Employment is key to enhancing change. It provides a sense of purpose, identity, and financial stability. When re-engaging homeless in services it is essential individuals do not have to wait 2-3 months for appointments. The longer the lapse in services, it has the potential to increase isolation, uncertainty, and anxiety. Professionals need to work with homeless individuals collaboratively to increase a sense of trust while also assessing for signs of illness (mental or physical) to ensure the best possible outcomes,” adds Dr. Keiner.
Pause for a Moment and Consider their Perspective
It’s easy to brush off the plight of the homeless. We often dismiss people who are the most vulnerable as having made “bad choices” and getting themselves into an unsafe situation. But when you take a moment to step into the shoes of someone who is experiencing homelessness, it’s easy to see that many different factors can contribute to a person’s vulnerability and susceptibility to homelessness.
Many people who do not have stable housing are struggling with mental illness. Unless you have significant resources, it’s often next to impossible to get the support you need for dealing with serious mental illness. Most people don’t have that support, causing many with mental illness to fall through the cracks of society and end up on the street. About 20% of people experiencing homelessness in 2017 had a serious mental illness.
Empathy is key to helping the homeless population. Step into their shoes and see how trauma, mental illness, and addiction may have played a role. Non-judgmental communication is important for working with vulnerable populations and helping them to improve their situation.
Donate Supplies & Resources to Homeless Shelters
Not feeling ready to work with homeless populations directly? You can still help by donating to the organizations that are making a difference in the lives of people living on the streets. Monetary donations are great, but you can also donate needed supplies and even organize supply drives in your community.
Resources are key for helping the homeless during the pandemic. Shelters and other social organizations need cleaning supplies, masks, soap, and PPE to safely serve the homeless population. Living in a homeless shelter during a pandemic is extremely dangerous, but having access to basic sanitation supplies can literally save lives.
Raise Awareness via Social Media
Most people are wrapped up in their own pandemic worries. They might be concerned about their job situation or their elderly family members and might not have even considered the plight of the homeless population in the face of the deadly virus that is sweeping the globe. That’s why awareness is so key.
Social media can be a powerful tool for bringing attention to societal issues and mobilizing compassionate people. You might have more power online than you think when it comes to building awareness. Even if you only have a small audience, you can help to spread the word and raise awareness for what the homeless population is going through right now.
Don’t take it for granted that other people know what the homeless population is facing. Education will always help to bring in new support and resources where it’s most needed. One person can make a big difference during this time of turmoil for people experiencing homelessness.