The struggles of COVID-19 were experienced far and wide. The World Health Organization denotes that there have been 180,650,000 COVID-19 cases with nearly 4 million COVID-19 deaths globally. Beyond the horrific health implications, businesses endured extended closures and constraints, causing an economic downturn that increased unemployment. These impacts were pervasive, with nobody emerging unscathed. However, perhaps victims hidden from media attention are those experiencing homelessness.
Individuals experiencing homelessness are considered a highly vulnerable population even in normal circumstances. With individuals experiencing homelessness” lack of consistent shelter and access to necessities, local and federal governments and organizations within the homelessness industry understood the severity that COVID-19 posed to this population. Swiftly, organizations rose to the call and crafted innovative ways to decrease virus transmission within the homeless population.
While certainly far from perfect or universal, these innovations created spaces that were more conducive to social distancing and providing an area of concentrated resources throughout the Pandemic. For example, certain governments throughout the United States innovated the threat of congregate housing by expanding non-congregate shelter options by utilizing unused hotel space and creating designated camps. However, many individuals experiencing homelessness or on the brink of homelessness often went under the radar.
One of the hidden problems of COVID-19 is aptly named hidden homelessness. Hidden homelessness is a phenomenon where individuals’ shelter is temporary or insecure, often right on the fence of total homelessness. Those who are “hidden homeless” usually live below the poverty line and find shelter in vehicles, R.V.s, motels, or couch-surfing, finding shelter amongst their family and friends.
Studies often overlook the hidden homeless population, given limited residency in a singular place. Consequently, numbers representing the number of individuals experiencing homelessness are likely far less than the actual number of those experiencing homelessness. This impacts those experiencing hidden homelessness because they are not being considered for nor gaining the benefits that the government and non-profit organizations provide for homeless individuals.
COVID-19 had a particular impact on those experiencing hidden homelessness. The economic downturn caused by the Pandemic led to many individuals being unable to maintain secure access to housing. Unemployment and limited hours were working left many individuals with tough decisions. For some, it meant that paying for rent was no longer an option. As a result, many individuals became homeless within the Pandemic, but within ways that would not be accounted for in official reports denoting homelessness rates.
One primary form of hidden homelessness that increased within COVID-19 is vehicle residency. According to a study conducted by Seattle University Law School, vehicle residency is often utilized by those who are homeless when they have either recently become homeless or are on their next step to obtaining permanent housing. Vehicles provide benefits such as protection from crime, coverage from the environment, and warmth crucial for individuals without shelter. Before COVID-19, an increasing rate of rules was crafted to deter the frequency of vehicle residency.
Once the Pandemic hit, certain local governments responded in ways that expanded the usage of vehicle residency. The National Homeless Law Center made a few suggestions that supported the ability to maintain vehicle residency: place a moratorium on vehicle ticketing, towing, and impoundment. Cities like Pasadena, Seattle, and Washington D.C. upheld these recommendations, allowing for vehicle residencies.
As COVID-19 dissipates, vehicle residency, or hidden homelessness for that matter, is not disappearing. It is still a significant issue that deserves recognition and support.