The United Nations NGO Working Group to End Homelessness (WGEH), while thanking the UN, particularly the ECOSOC Council’s Commission for Social Development, for their recent focus on the work of ending homelessness around the world, extends its gratitude to all Member States who have already included homelessness in their COVID-19 relief efforts. At the same time it advocates for "A strong and thoughtful response to the intersections of homelessness and COVID-19" to ensure that “no one is left behind” while pushing forward for the achievement of the UN 2030 Agenda for SD.
The United Nations NGO Working Group to End Homelessness (WGEH) recognizes that people experiencing homelessness are dangerously vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus has potentially devastating consequences for those living on the streets or in crowded congregate shelters, where they cannot quarantine themselves, wash their hands, or protect themselves as we have all been instructed to do.
As Leilani Farha, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, noted, “Housing has become the frontline of defense against coronavirus. Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation.” How does one shelter on the spot, maintain distance, wash their hands, wear masks or gloves, isolate or quarantine, when one has no home and minimal other resources? We must recognize that those sleeping on our streets are nonetheless a part of our communities, and that we are only as safe and as healthy as our most vulnerable neighbors.
In most societies there is an unprecedented proportion of minorities among those at risk of (or already contracting) the disease, including within the homeless population. Homeless populations are already affected by serious health concerns, which increase vulnerability to the virus; these are often results or reflections of lack of housing and housing inadequacy, associated with food and water insecurity and poverty.
The hidden homeless, rather than being visibly on the street, face housing insecurity/inadequacy. An increasingly common scenario resulting from COVID-19 conditions is that victims of domestic violence and abuse are now confined in close quarters and an exacerbated situation of dependency with their abusers. As mothers with children comprise much of these cases, a gendered response appropriate to families is warranted.
Refugees, international migrants, internally displaced persons, victims of trafficking, and slum dwellers should also be reframed for inclusion within the hidden homeless category. Generally, women and children disproportionately comprise these groups. The hidden homeless face similar challenges for attaining social distance and adequate sanitation during this pandemic, as well as meeting basic needs and securing income.
The facts and moral urgency are clear. Given their extreme vulnerability, we must act to ensure that people who are experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity are protected, their unique challenges confronted, and their specific needs met, during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond. Simply put, we will not be able to control the coronavirus unless public health actions and standards apply to all.
The NGO WGEH calls on the UN and its Member States to explicitly include measures for homelessness in all COVID-19 relief efforts, including in humanitarian response plans. In particular, we call for: