Vulnerability during COVID-19: Spotlight on Homelessness

Who is vulnerable?

When we think about which people are vulnerable during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the most vulnerable seem to clearly be groups such as the elderly and immunocompromised. While it is undoubtedly true that these groups suffer disproportionately from the effects of COVID-19, there are other groups that have experienced extreme hardship during the crisis who have not been adequately considered in emergency planning and response.

Vulnerability during COVID-19: Spotlight on Homelessness

For The Salvation Army, a BuildERS project partner and an organization dedicated to helping those most in need, the list of those who are vulnerable in times of crisis is long. Domestic violence victims, irregular migrants, those in poverty, ethnic minorities such as Roma, human trafficking victims, and homeless people are just some of the people who might experience additional vulnerability in this crisis, either related directly to the virus or the effects of lockdowns and the suspension of economic activity. The Salvation Army provides services for many of these groups, including people with substance abuse issues, the homeless, migrants, and human trafficking victims and has therefore been at the frontlines of witnessing the increase in vulnerability as well as the gaps in protection that this crisis has illuminated and widened.


Difficulties faced by the homeless

 For those living without stable accommodation or on the street, the effects of COVID-19 are multi-faceted. Not only are the homeless unable to self-quarantine, they are often denied access to facilities that they usually depend on, such as public showers and toilets, food banks, and day-facilities run by The Salvation Army and other organizations where they can have a respite from difficult weather conditions and receive a hot meal or drink. Being unable to self-quarantine can lead to a much higher chance of contracting the virus or can result in being penalized for their usual activities like walking outside or sitting on a bench. Food banks noticed a sharp decrease in donations from local supermarkets due to hoarding, resulting in shortages in food packages for those living on the streets or in poverty.

A challenge that is not often considered is the situation of homeless shelters during the epidemic. Homeless shelters remain open but lack protective materials and limited staff to compensate for sick staff and an increase in clients create a heavy burden for those working at homeless shelters.


Creative solutions

Lack of access to facilities and resources for food, hygiene, and other basic necessities have led to some creative initiatives in Europe. For example, an initiative called #freeplugs started by The Salvation Army in France and Belgium. Many homeless are unable to remain in touch with their loved ones if they are unable to charge their phones. The initiative asks citizens to run extension cables outside their homes so homeless people and others in need can recharge their phones.

In the wake of the crisis, The Salvation Army in The Netherlands started an awareness-raising campaign highlighted the fact that it is impossible for the homeless to self-isolate, simply asking, “Stay at home? How?” Inspired by this campaign, a cartoonist created a representation of the question posed by The Salvation Army, showing a slug asking a snail, “Easy for you, but where am I supposed to go?” In response to this campaign, temporary accommodation has been provided in partnership with hotel chains, a cruise hotel, and municipal authorities. In one case, a redundant prison furnished through the support of IKEA now provides privacy and a safe space with 41 former cells.

In Italy, where residents in homeless shelters have been in strict lockdown for over two months, The Salvation Army launched online programmes and activities to help residents combat the stress and isolation of being in lockdown in their rooms.

The organization FEANTSA issued a call with the support of The Salvation Army and other NGOs internationally calling for the protection of the homeless. The call highlights the need for safe accommodation, access to food and hygiene, risk reduction equipment for both residents and employees, the provision of counselling and support in view of the closure of services and reception centres, and the protection of the homeless from punitive measures by the police. In addition to this, the call addresses the urgency for testing in homeless and migrant shelters and support services for both employees and residents, maintaining housing for those vulnerable to homelessness and poverty, and to put in place structural solutions for access to housing, which has become a public health imperative. Crises like COVID-19 not only uncover the vulnerability of certain groups, but also create further vulnerability. For example, organizations specializing in human trafficking have reported and predict further increases in the rates of trafficking worldwide, as traffickers prey on the growing vulnerability created by economic hardship from COVID-19.


Gap in protection

These examples are only a small portion of the numerous initiatives that communities and NGOs have started in the past two months to address the needs of the homeless. While they are excellent examples of the generosity and creativity of communities facing an unprecedented situation, they also reveal a gap in protection offered by government and local authorities. In the immediate emergency plans made by governments to respond to the crisis, the vulnerable groups who were most heavily considered in emergency response plans included the elderly and immunocompromised, however other vulnerable groups were considered by many NGOs to be neglected in the early days of crisis response. Eventually, due to calls from civil society to respond to the needs of other vulnerable groups, plans were hastily cobbled together in most European countries to provide for some of the greatest deficiencies faced by vulnerable groups, such as providing emergency housing for the homeless. This delayed response proves that there is an ongoing need for emergency plans that consider different types of vulnerability and create plans that consider the specific needs of these groups. Emergency planning and responses ought to be coordinated locally and nationally with the assistance of on the ground organizations like The Salvation Army who are equipped with knowledge of the unique challenges and needs of different vulnerable groups during specific crises. Furthermore, access to housing and other basic needs ought to be prioritized as a basic human right, instead of an additional measure taken only during a public health crisis.

The BuildERS project provides the unique opportunity for The Salvation Army to participate in research that seeks to prioritize the voices and experiences of vulnerable groups in crisis situations. Given the unprecedented crisis that COVID-19 has brought about, policy that protects and prioritizes the well-being of vulnerable groups in crises is more important than ever. BuildERS rationale is that “by taking into account and strengthening the weakest groups the aggregate resilience of the society is enhanced.” It is not only for the sake of communal well-being that BuildERS engages in this research, but with the belief that every human life is valuable and worthy of protection and care.


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