With the coronavirus pandemic gaining speed in the United States, especially on the West Coast, the crisis raises questions about what will happen to the poor and homeless of the country, who are disproportionately located there.
California has long been at risk for epidemic disease. Poor sanitation in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, along with large populations of transients and homeless, have already paved the way for the reintroduction of diseases the modern world had thought it conquered. Typhus outbreaks hit Los Angeles early last year, infecting multiple police officers and a city prosecutor.
In response, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that the state government would procure hotel rooms to allow the homeless to self-isolate. In other cities similar measures have been proposed, including reserving “safe spaces” for the unhoused to quarantine themselves. The move will “get people out of encampments and into environments where we can address their growing anxiety and our growing concern about the health of some of our most vulnerable Californians,” Newsom said on Sunday.
The one potential bright spot in the epidemic is that it could spur public officials to do something to alleviate the burdens of the homeless or those in distressed housing situations. Miami-Dade County in Florida has suspended police assistance with evictions (which is notably not the same thing as suspending evictions themselves). Los Angeles has also placed a moratorium on evictions.
In addition to the homeless, hourly workers and gig workers will face significant distress because of the coronavirus as businesses are shut down. Mitt Romney has proposed a $1,000 payment to all Americans to alleviate short-term burdens. Journalists have also pointed out how school closures will have an impact on the millions of children who rely on free school lunches to feed themselves. My own home county of Arlington is leaving open food pick-ups at several schools in the area, and it’s hard to imagine others leaving kids hungry; one expects municipal governments are flexible enough to provide lunches without opening schools.