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A homeless veteran

Racial Disparities, Homelessness, and COVID-19

May 1, 2020

by Carline Charmelus
Project Manager for the Reaching Home Campaign at the Partnership for Strong Communities

In just a few days, our lives have been altered. The COVID-19 pandemic is allowing racial disparities to be starkly visible worldwide. Although the novel coronavirus does not discriminate based on an individual’s race, the spread of the virus is deeply rooted in systems of inequities and discrimination. From our nation’s history of slavery, to the enduring racist policies, practices, and messages against and toward people of color in our modern day, policies and practices have resulted in significant racial outcome gaps in wealth, education, health, and housing.   

In Connecticut, African Americans make up 12 percent of the overall population, and Hispanics make up 16 percent of the population. However, African Americans represent 38 percent, and Hispanics represent 34 percent of the homeless population. Between October 1, 2018, and September 30, 2019, the state emergency shelters served approximately 840 households, 80 percent were headed by people of color, and 90 percent of children under the age of five were minorities. In addition, African American and Latino children are more likely to live in households with high housing cost burden, leaving limited resources for families to address other necessities such as food, health care, and financial stability.  

Although incomplete, the Connecticut Department of Public Health has released preliminary racial and ethnic breakdown data of those who have tested positive and have died from the virus. As of April 21st , 2020, 19 percent of the known racial and ethnic demographic confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 were blacks, 24 percent were Hispanics. Of the reported deaths from COVID-19, 16 percent were black individuals.  Not only are black individuals and Hispanics more likely to be housing cost-burdened, they are also disproportionately represented in the homelessness system and the number of COVID-19 cases as compared to the percentage represented in the overall population.  

The CDC reports that people 65 and over and those living with pre-existing conditions, such as chronic lung disease, heart conditions, hypertension, have a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and developing severe complications. People of color have a higher risk of these chronic health conditions than white, non-Hispanic people. Moreover, those experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable and are at a higher risk of infections and worse health outcomes than those that are housed. They are more likely to have diabetes, hypertension, HIV/AIDs, Hepatitis C, substance use disorders, and depression than those that are safely housed.  So, people of color experience homelessness at higher rates than whites, and both being black and being homeless puts them at a higher risk for chronic health conditions. Black people experiencing homelessness are some of our most at-risk residents.   

As a young black woman with elderly parents and siblings living with pre-existing health conditions that make them susceptible to contracting COVID-19, the past few weeks have been challenging. From the misinformation earlier on in the media regarding the risk of contracting COVID-19 as a black person, the over-representation of minorities that are testing positive and dying from the virus, to the racial discrimination of Asian descendants in the U.S and against blacks that are living or visiting China have created some race-based stress (racial trauma) due to the perceived threat to my well-being and that of my friends and family.   

Having a safe place to live is more critical now than ever. Personally, being able to practice social distancing in my own home, with my family, has provided me with a sense of security and comfort. It is a sad reality that this option is not afforded to many, especially our most vulnerable population.  

This pandemic has made it clear that having a home is the most effective way of preventing the spread of COVID-19 and keeping our residents safe. Moreover, it has further reinforced the need to center our work to prevent and end homelessness through a racial equity lens, and these conversations need to be happening now. The data shows glaring disparities on how policies, practices, and resource allocation have negatively impacted minority communities. Minority communities are currently disproportionately impacted by this virus -- therefore, the policy and resource allocation decisions that are being made must address this inequity. 

The National Innovation Service (NIS) recently released a blog post that provides some preliminary equity framework for responding to COVID-19. They have suggested having diverse representation in emergency management meetings to ensure equity-based decisions are part of the process. They have also re-iterated that housing is the leading solution to keeping this virus at bay. Having you own place, with a lock and key, is the only way to truly practice social distancing and follow the hygiene guidelines.

In closing, redesigning our systems and processes through a racial equity lens will be challenging at first. We will have to dismantle some current norms and standards that are so ingrained in our society and figure out ways to incorporate diverse voices and representation in decision-making processes. We will need accurate data to ensure that resources are targeted to the minority communities and neighborhoods which need it the most. However, at the end of it, we will come out of this process as a more inclusive and stronger community.   

Thank you for reading my blog. Please feel free to reach out if you are interested to learn how the Partnership for Strong Communities is working to apply a racial equity lens through its work.