For decades, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless has worked to break down the barriers that widespread poverty has created.  Since our inception, we have worked to affirm housing as a fundamental right—not a privilege.  Perhaps no moment more critically highlights the crucial importance of and need for housing and safe spaces than the current public health emergency. COVID-19 has ravaged the most vulnerable communities across this nation.  It has directed a spotlight onto the many injustices and inequities faced by those existing in spaces that society has cast aside, exacerbating the real and deadly effects of poverty and white supremacy.  It has pushed to the forefront conversations around health and economic disparities, income inequality, housing insecurity, and the inequitable allocation of resources.

While the disastrous effects of this pandemic are being seen throughout the country, people experiencing homelessness and in congregate settings are among those most heavily impacted.  With a lack of access to widespread testing or safe spaces to socially distance, these communities are seeing a massive spread of infection. Simply, streets and congregate settings are not appropriate environments to contain or control the spread of this virus.

Despite this widely accepted fact, there are still far too many DC residents on the street and in crowded congregate shelters.  Out of approximately 4,000 single adults currently experiencing homelessness in DC, less than three percent have been relocated to private spaces where social distancing can actually occur.  Tragically, nine homeless DC residents have died from COVID-19 and 152 have had confirmed positive results as of Sunday, April 26th.  During a five-day period last week, the spike in cases among the unhoused community was 2.5 times higher than the increase among DC’s general population. Without access to universal testing, the numbers of those affected are undoubtedly higher than the reported data reflects.

We know that the containment of this virus is a global undertaking.  Community members, nonprofit organizations, and local government officials have been working hard to figure out ways to protect the community with limited federal funding and constantly evolving public health guidance.  However, the District is certainly not alone in the challenges it faces to protect its homeless population.  When confronted with startling data, other jurisdictions shifted gears in order to respond with urgency and creativity in ensuring that shelter and street populations are widely tested and moved to non-congregate settings.  Many other jurisdictions have already placed thousands of homeless individuals in hotels.  Meanwhile, DC’s current hotel occupancy rate is less than ten percent, leaving nearly 30,000 rooms empty, in addition to thousands of vacant dormitory and housing units throughout DC.

Unfortunately, DC’s current initiatives are not enough to protect DC’s homeless community. The time has come to shift the DC government’s approach.

The Legal Clinic recommends that the DC government:

  • Immediately offer a COVID-19 test to every person who lives on the street or in a congregate setting.
  • Immediately offer a placement to every person who lives on the street or in a congregate setting into a private and non-congregate setting, such as a hotel room, a private dormitory unit, or a vacant housing unit. Develop a system to screen and place people who become homeless during this time into private settings. In these non-congregate settings, provide food, staffing, other basic needs, and medical assistance, as appropriate. Ensure that those residents are checked on regularly.
  • Retain non-congregate placements until COVID-19 is no longer a pandemic or epidemic and has been nationally contained by widespread access to a vaccine. Simultaneously work to quickly place people into safe, affordable housing to limit the number of individuals who will eventually return to congregate settings.

Last Friday, the Legal Clinic sent a letter to Mayor Bowser detailing the aforementioned concerns and recommendations for protecting the lives of community members experiencing homelessness and in congregate settings. People experiencing homelessness in DC are more likely to be elderly, Black, and suffer health conditions that place them at high risk of death or serious complications from COVID-19.  DC must act immediately to protect the lives of its vulnerable communities. DC must also further its expressed commitment to racial justice by creating and maintaining housing that is deeply affordable for those who need it to survive here, now and post-pandemic.

Update: please join us in asking the Mayor to pivot her approach by signing this petition!