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For people experiencing homelessness, winter is always an especially difficult time. With temperatures dropping largely impacting those without homes and seasonal illnesses spreading for those without healthcare providers, people experiencing homelessness face dire circumstances. 

This year, however, homelessness is impacting individuals differently than ever before. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this winter brings an entirely new set of challenges to people experiencing homelessness. 

A new report from United Way of the National Capital Area analyzed the impact of COVID-19 impacts on homelessness throughout the past year. Their national and state findings offer crucial insights into what challenges people experiencing homelessness and those in the communities around them will continue to face this winter. 

First, the report looked into the states where residents experience homelessness or face threats of homelessness the most. According to the report, some states faced collective threats of high homelessness rates, high unemployment rates, and high rates of eviction over the past year. 

For instance, Washington, D.C. was the district with the highest homelessness rate before COVID-19, with .92% experiencing homelessness, as well as the place with the seventh-highest unemployment rate in the country during the pandemic. Pre-existing relevance of homelessness means that cities were already fighting to support residents before the pandemic. Then, when COVID-19 financial losses led to increased unemployment and reduced incomes, support systems had to find ways to support more and more residents facing homelessness. 

Many of those systems include emergency home loan programs, eviction moratoria, and homeless shelters. However, just as COVID-19 increased the demand for social services, it also impacted communities’ ability to supply aid. 

For instance, while more and more people experiencing homelessness needed health support and COVID-19 testing through free health clinics, social distancing requirements and COVID-19 safety precautions forced many clinics to shut down

According to United Way’s report, over the course of 2020, an average number of at least 200 health centers with special funding to support individuals experiencing homelessness every month. In May alone, over 600 health centers were closed, leaving many people experiencing homelessness without essential care. 

What effect did these closures have on the populations of people experiencing homelessness that they serve? Closure of health centers, along with other factors like lack of access to personal protective equipment and a disinfected home, led to increased rates of COVID-19 within homeless populations. 

The study reported that while national averages for COVID-19 in spring and summer of 2020 ranged from 4-8%, in populations experiencing homelessness, the average range was 9-12% in the same time period. Given the fact that people experiencing homelessness are mostly adults and that many have underlying health conditions, this posed a unique medical threat to those experiencing homelessness. 

From all this, we know that heading into the winter of 2020, conditions surrounding the pandemic and homelessness were extremely challenging to the communities trying to remedy the situation. Shut-down or reduced capacity shelters cannot support cold residents looking for a bed, and seasonal flu and viral outbreaks must be treated in a COVID-19-safe manner. 

While the situation for the winter looks especially grim, there is hope that comes with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccinating populations experiencing homelessness is difficult to begin with. However, factors like vaccine availability, staff availability, and the virality of COVID-19 make the task of vaccinating American populations experiencing homelessness especially difficult. Still, the CDC has offered general guidelines and suggestions for homeless shelters. Additionally, as community vaccination rates rise, we can hope that herd immunity can protect these underserved populations.

You can take a closer look at the data around COVID-19 and homelessness here.