Homelessness and the Coronavirus

Protecting the Health of the Homeless is Key to Overall Community Health

The global Corona virus pandemic has brought America to a literal HALT!  In the meantime, at A Safe Haven while we are continuing to work around the clock to help protect our staff and our homeless residents, and at the same time we are concerned about who is going to pay for our mandatory amped up services and right now we need the public’s help! We are currently in dire need of medical thermometers, face masks, personal anti-bacterial hygiene products, cleaning supplies, food and financial support to cover the cost of our staffing.

Expanding our capacity

Today. businesses across the country are closing down; cities are declaring shelter in place laws; hospitals are preparing for a surge in overcrowded conditions; borders between countries are closing down and workers everywhere are being told to stay home to reduce the curve and the prevent the spread of the Corona virus. Unfortunately, many nonprofits such as the Chicago-based A Safe Haven, which care for the homeless through a comprehensive program, don’t have the luxury of ever closing or canceling services. In fact, we are being asked to expand our capacity!

In the last couple of weeks President Trump signed a bill to provide over $8 billion dollars to help stem the spread of and find a cure for the Corona virus or COVID-19. According to the bill that passed, the $8 billion is currently earmarked for pharmaceutical companies to fast track drugs to fight the virus, and institutional healthcare systems like hospitals and clinics, research, and public health agencies throughout the country to treat those affected.

More than $2 billion will go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for public health funding for prevention, preparedness, and response of COVID-19. Also, $3 billion will go to a public health emergency fund and the National Institute of Health (NIH) for research and development of vaccines, treatment, and testing of the virus. The bill would even provide nearly $1.3 billion to help protect the health of Americans living abroad from COVID-19. In addition, the federal government has passed an additional $50 billion to help businesses, employers and employees deal with the economic fallout of the coronavirus. Now a trillion dollars are being authorized by the Federal Government to deal and bail out some of our major institutions impacted by the fall out of the pandemic.

Homeless Programs

As we sift through the material, we can’t help but notice that homeless programs are not on the top of the list as named priority beneficiaries, yet. We would like to see a part of the dedicated emergency government funding from the new funds being allocated to go directly to homeless programs, and here’s why.

Chicago is one of many U. S. cities that have been experiencing a growing homeless epidemic for decades. At A Safe Haven, we have a longstanding tradition of instituting and maintaining rigorous policies to prevent outbreaks of the flu during flu season along with any other communicable diseases at all of our location(s). These policies are already in place as we continue to strengthen them in accordance with all of the requirements being recommended by the CDC.

Helping the Homeless

With A Safe Haven’s current limited funding, we house an average of 5,000 people a year throughout our network and provide them with a full range of wrap around services to help them get back on their feet with jobs and housing. Yet, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) we have over 86,000 homeless individuals in the city and more than 16,000 homeless students in the Chicago Public School (CPS) system.

These are people who are almost always malnourished, have preexisting respiratory and health issues and receive inadequate, if any healthcare and if they do are very unlikely to comply with medical advice and prescriptions. There are many senior citizens among the homeless, who are at greater risk for death if they contract the virus because of their age. The homeless are often affected by debilitating physical, social, and emotional health and mental health issues. Most importantly, they are subject daily to the volatile Chicago weather without proper shelter, except in public places where they could be most likely to spread the virus, should they be a carrier. Most of us, should we need it, have a place to quarantine ourselves if the need arose where we could protect others from catching it, if we are contagious. For the homeless, that place is a public area, or a homeless facility, like A Safe Haven.

COVID-19 and the Homeless

There are currently no documented cases among the homeless in Chicago but an outbreak of COVID-19 among this population residing at a facility like A Safe Haven would be catastrophic to our facility. All it takes is one transient homeless person to contract the virus, spread it among the tent cities, and eventually take down public transportation system, public spaces, the city ecosystem, and, in the worst case scenario, all of us too.

When there is a pandemic, it is definitely within the realm of possibility. The ripple effect to the economy is already being felt as the stock market has lost trillions of dollars in value and some businesses that are closing may not come back after this passes, causing uncertainty where many companies will be forced to lay people off. The first to get laid off are usually the ones who could least afford it and in the last week, the unemployment offices are seeing a record number of applicants. According to Prosperity Now, an economic advocacy group, 40% of the population is only one paycheck away from falling into in poverty and at risk of becoming homeless.

Ironically, the death rate among the homeless already is high due to their underlying physical and mental health issues, especially if you factor in the 130 people nationally who die from opioid epidemic, daily according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Unfortunately, the number of those diagnosed with behavioral healthcare issues, becoming homeless and dying from deaths of despair, isn’t being reported by the media on a daily basis. Since these issues were ignored over the years, we unwittingly allowed the death toll to climb instead of taking emergency measures to address the root causes of both the opioid and homelessness epidemics.

Seeking financial donations

As we confront the imminent reality of being impacted by COVID-19 until we find a cure, the team at A Safe Haven is doing everything we can to ensure that our residents remain physically and emotionally healthy, and on the road to self-sufficiency without distractions and interruption of services. Like everyone else, though, we too are in need of significant resources to take extra measures to strengthen our current policies, staffing, and inventory of supplies needed to protect against and mitigate a mass fatal outbreak of COVID-19.

I urge Chicagoans to join us in urging Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker and leaders across the country to make sure that homeless programs are included at the top of the list for emergency funding to help us prepare, plan, and execute any necessary steps to stop, contain, and deal with COVID-19. Gov. Pritzker just declared COVID-19 a disaster in the state of Illinois and we are grateful that he has made this designation. To help us plan, prepare, and prevent the spread of COVID-19 from affecting homeless populations, we are also asking corporate foundations and individuals in the private sector for financial donations to nonprofit organizations like ours to cover extra costs for any extra anti-bacterial items, soap, laundry detergent and masks.

Preparing for the fallout

Even as we already experience pent-up demand for our services by the current homeless population living in our city, we brace ourselves for the potential tsunami of new homeless people in need of our help, in the same way we prepared for the last recession in 2008. According to A Safe Haven’s records, this period is when more than 54% of the population we served lost their jobs and became homeless for the first time in their lives. With additional funding, we can immediately offer more safe refuge and healthy nutritious food–the most basic needs to those who need it. To make that happen, let’s make sure that our policy and philanthropic efforts help get health, research and pharmaceutical networks what they need, but also prioritize meeting the urgent needs of community-based organizations serving the most vulnerable population on the front lines.

Neli Vazquez Rowland, President & Co-Founder A Safe Haven Foundation



Neli Vazquez Rowland is the President/Co-founder of A Safe Haven Foundation. A Safe Haven is a world class, unique, vertically integrated ‘eco- system’ nonprofit that is successfully rebuilding lives from poverty and homelessness. Her goal is to inspire and influence a ‘paradigm shift’ on how our Nation addresses the issues of poverty, homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction with protocols that offer an effective, efficient delivery system by connecting services and leveraging investment resources of public and private entities that have a shared responsibility and common goal of making a measurable and positive social impact to society.  A Safe Haven delivery system is designed to help people in crisis achieve sustainable self-sufficiency and to achieve the ‘double bottom line’ of saving money and more importantly saving lives long-term.

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