The impact of COVID19 on people experiencing homelessness
People have been asking what the impact of Coronavirus is on those experiencing a transitionary period of homelessness. It is a really good and valid question and the answers may not be what you expect.
Homelessness and Social Distancing
If you think about it from a point of view of the government advice, they are telling us to practice social distancing. This involves distancing ourselves from others so as to slow down as much as possible the spread of the virus. The less people you come into contact with the less chance you have of contracting the virus.
Social isolation is already a reality for our friends who are transitioning through homelessness. We are being told not to go to Pubs, Restaurants, Social Gatherings, not to go to crowded shops. None of our guests at our church shelter are doing any of these things. They do not have that kind of privilege. Their lives are already fairly solitary and isolated. They find community where they can but in very different places to the rest of us.
The real risk to our friends experiencing homelessness
The reality is that our guests are more at risk from our staff/volunteers passing Corona Virus TO them. It is less likely to be the other way round. There is also another massive danger to our friends who are experiencing homelessness right now. This is the closing of essential services due to self-isolation, social distancing and fear. Going back to rough sleeping puts our friends at greater risk than Coronavirus does.
We have already found that Coronavirus is placing undue strain on essential services. Night shelters rely on volunteers, many of whom are retired and vulnerable to the impact of the virus. The reality is that retired people have a greater capacity to volunteer than those of us with day time jobs and young families. As the numbers of volunteers available drops, the risk of the service having to close goes up.
A unique time of opportunity
These unprecedented times are characterised by fear and uncertainty. At the same time, there is also significant opportunity and potentially a pool of volunteers not previously available. Those who work in businesses having to close such as pubs, restaurants and cinemas, may be in a unique position to volunteer some of their unexpected time. As providers we have a responsibility to ensure that the information is available. We should make sure that people realise that we have a specific need that they might be able to fulfil and they may not have thought about it.
It is also a reality that there are people who may need contexts within which they can work on their own mental health. People are scared so to speak of the impact that months of social distancing will have on their own mental health. This is particularly true though not exclusively, of extroverts. Extroverts like me are individuals who recharge their batteries by spending time in the presence of others. They find social distancing absolutely draining and need the company of others to survive. We know that the impact upon a volunteer’s mental well being of volunteering is substantial. This would be doubly the case where the volunteering in and of itself is providing a context for community that the volunteer would not be able to get elsewhere as a result of social distancing.
Building community solidarity
Coronavirus is going to have a massive impact on us all from all backgrounds, circumstances and situations. We must do things differently. We have to rally as a community around the vulnerable around us. Building community solidarity right now ironically involves social distancing. We must care for the vulnerable among us by not spreading the virus unnecessarily. But it also involves all of us that are healthy, looking out for our neighbours and those who live down our streets who are vulnerable, lonely and isolated. But equally, essential services like Night shelters, food banks and other organisations who are taking care of people under circumstances where lives are being saved, need people to volunteer.