If you have a bed and a home to sleep in tonight, be grateful. In Los Angeles County, California 58,936 people were homeless as of 2019, up 12% from the prior year. That staggering number represents a wide range of people, including:
- 6% who are homeless as a result of fleeing violent situations
- 8,000 veterans
- 3,926 homeless youth
- 30% struggling with mental illness
Now imagine that you are homeless and severely ill with a widespread virus known to kill people with compromised immunity. Due to the circumstances of your life, you don’t have regular meals, let alone access to medical care or basic resources.
With the increasing spread of Coronavirus, this is likely to be the devastating outcome for thousands of homeless people in California. Homeless people are particularly vulnerable to Coronavirus as a result of having increased exposure and without adequate protection and medical resources.
A Corona outbreak in Los Angeles homeless population would rapidly turn into a statewide health crisis, as the virus is spread through casual contact and by passive exposure.
Without proper testing and quarantine, Coronavirus would rapidly spread throughout the homeless community and to people who interact with those who unknowingly have the virus.
The transmission of the illness would be rapid and widespread, passing through service workers, police officers, medical providers, pedestrians and passersby to name a few. As it stands, people are transferring the illness to others without even being aware of contamination; if one isn’t experiencing symptoms, but carries the virus, it is possible to spread it to people with weakened immune systems which could have devastating effects for a vast number of people.
The most vulnerable populations impacted by Coronavirus include children, people over aged 65, people with weakened immunity and pregnant women.
An estimated 36% of people who become sick with Coronavirus die from it, according to the World Health Organization.
Given these grave statistics, it is vital to protect as many people as possible from this dreaded illness, particularly the more vulnerable populations. The challenge is to identify carriers and protect others from the spread of the illness, while treating people with the necessary medical care to help manage symptoms.
For homeless people, the likelihood of getting tested for Coronavirus is slim, given the limited number of test kits available; the possibility of getting treated for symptoms is equally as unlikely, which all but guarantees the rapid spread of the virus among the homeless population and beyond.
The outcome for California and other states could be devastating. The impact on homeless people and the role they could inadvertently have in spreading the illness should be carefully considered as the government and medical community strive to find effective prevention and treatment methods.
Just how to out-maneuver this ubiquitous virus is unknown at this time, but the global response to find a cure and carefully treat victims of the illness continues. Until a cure or a more effective prevention methodology is found, it is likely that thousands of people will contract the virus and die as a result. For homeless people, the risk is even more significant as exposure is far more likely and access to needed care is often unavailable.
Devastating international health crises such as this further make the case for addressing the homeless problem, in Los Angeles and beyond. Access to housing and medical care shouldn’t be a privilege. For the 58,936 homeless people of Los Angeles County, these basic necessities are all but fantasy.
We can only hope that Coronavirus can be contained and cured before it spreads further and make an effort to stay vigilant about respiratory symptoms and safe masking procedures.
For homeless people who don’t have medical access or other protections, the risk is greater, and the outcomes can be further damaging, including the spread of the illness across the population.
As with any widespread health pandemic, the most vulnerable populations are at greatest risk. Homeless people with untreated mental illness are highly vulnerable and may face an even greater challenge in accessing adequate care, given the issues that mental health problems can cause. Distrust of the system and traumatic life histories play into a complex challenge for homeless mentally ill people.
Somatic issues that some people experience as part of their mental illness may disguise viral symptoms, particularly for elderly people or veterans who may have PTSD related somatic symptoms.
While there is no simple fix for people facing Coronavirus (and other devastating illnesses) while living on the streets, it is our national duty to address the problem of homelessness, paying special attention to the most vulnerable populations such as the 30% who are living homeless and with mental illness.
The disparity between those living in poverty and the wealthy has never been greater and it is placing an enormous health risk on all of us. How do you quarantine people living on the streets? You don’t. And when they’re not able to even get tested for illnesses that are highly contagious, let alone access care and treatment, it puts everyone at risk.
St. Vincent de Paul of Los Angeles. “Homelessness Statistics,” accessed March 5, 2020.
Los Angeles Mission. “The State of Homelessness,” accessed March 5, 2020.
U.S. Vets. “There are 8,000 homeless veterans on the streets of Los Angeles,” USVetsinc.org, accessed March 5, 2020.
Holland, Gale. “Q&A: Mental illness and homelessness are connected. But not how you might think,” August 7, 2017, Los Angeles Times. Accessed March 5, 2020.
Rappler.com. “FAST FACTS: The MERS Coronavirus,” January 21, 2020. Accessed March 5, 2020.