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OC Voice: Orange County can protect the homeless population from COVID-19

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Alana Gilbert is a graduate student studying public health at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Photo courtesy of Gilbert.

The OC Voice is a portion of the OC Report newsletter where local residents may have a platform to talk about local issues they care about. Alana Gilbert is a graduate student studying public health at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. 

“Stay at home.”

An important phrase you’ve heard since March as the world continues to fight the spread of COVID-19. But what about those without a home?

People experiencing homelessness are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, as they are one of the most vulnerable populations with the fewest options to stay safe. These communities are more at risk of contracting and dying of COVID-19 due to high transmission rates in congregate housing, and have increased barriers to preventive behaviors like regular handwashing and self-isolation. 

Additionally, unhoused individuals have higher rates of long-term health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory illnesses and chronic infections that increase risks for hospitalization and COVID-related deaths.

Housing and health are basic social, human rights. Even more so during the pandemic, lack of safe shelter can lead to unwarranted deaths of those in our communities.

The COVID-19 Clinical Homeless Sector Plan, the United Kingdom’s response to protecting unsheltered communities during the pandemic, led to England housing almost everyone experiencing homelessness within weeks. 

In March, the UK government funded nearly $4 million for non-congregate accommodations, mostly in commercial hotels that were otherwise vacant. The plan had two main elements: providing single room, private bathroom accommodations to unhoused adults and regularly testing and medically supporting those with COVID-19 symptoms.

Coined as ‘Everyone In,’ these measures are estimated to have prevented 21,092 COVID-19 infections, 266 deaths, 1,164 hospital admissions and 338 intensive care unit admissions among the UK’s unsheltered communities. Within days, the national directive was implemented locally to provide nearly 15,000 rough sleepers with a safe place to stay, according to The Washington Post

Moreover, the UK’s Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has said that 90 percent of people experiencing homelessness have been offered protective shelter.

In order to keep communities safe, UK’s homeless accommodation services have reinforced hygiene measures, reserved housing units for isolation, secured extra shelter capacity to relieve overcrowding and deployed health staff for active COVID-19 testing and care. Targeted, proactive outreach measures for people experiencing homelessness have shown to help slow the spread of coronavirus, protect vulnerable populations and keep broader communities safe.

The pandemic has proven that with enough political will and urgency, you can nearly end homelessness in just a few weeks. So, what can Orange County learn from the UK’s response?

Although Orange County has mechanisms in place to assist housing insecure individuals, such as homeless prevention funds for rent and security deposits, and expanded Section-8 Housing Choice Vouchers, dozens of individuals are still sleeping out. 

Limited regular and accessible testing events in downtown Chapel Hill — where most unhoused folks frequent — and no widespread coordinated testing efforts, pose great challenges both for people experiencing homelessness and the community at large.

Orange County has provided a limited number of non-congregate beds at a local hotel, although it is the same amount allocated pre-COVID-19 despite the increased need. With no emergency shelter and a long waitlist for beds, unhoused Chapel Hill residents are forced to sleep out — even as the incoming winter brings frigid nights.

In addition to expanding affordable housing options, the county should scale up non-congregate shelter space, such as in otherwise vacant hotels, to match the increased need. Furthermore, targeted, widespread outreach of testing should be implemented to identify cases and appropriately mitigate spread.  

As COVID-19 cases rise, we must act now to keep all in our community safe.

Protect your neighbors, protect your community and promote solidarity.

If you live in Orange County and want to make your voice heard on something you care about locally, email 

 @DTHCityState | 

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