The coronavirus, as crises often do, has brought out the best and the worst in us. While most people are looking for ways to help, others have been less than kind.
Fewer than 48 hours after news of the virus surfaced in King County, conservative radio commentator Jason Rantz was on national TV, attacking the civil rights of homeless people and labeling them as potentially contagious.
FOX News offered this headline: “Seattle radio host warns homeless crisis could be to blame for spread of coronavirus in Washington state.”
“They’re jumping on buses because they can ride for free,” Rantz breathlessly opined. “They’re going into public restrooms. They’re going into public libraries, and there’s a possibility that they’re spreading it at a higher than normal rate.”
The solution, he said, is to force homeless people indoors where they might be more easily quarantined. This, despite the absence of one confirmed case of COVID-19 among those on the street or in shelter.
Bravely, Real Change lead organizer Tiffani McCoy went on-air to set him straight. Yes, homeless people are vulnerable, she said. They skew older and often have compromised health. They are at mortal risk. Concern is justified.
But, our shelters are already overcrowded, and not one public health expert recommends forcing people indoors. Homeless sweeps are actually making things worse.
We know that a recent quarterly report showed that 96 percent of sweeps were done without 72-hours’ notice, and that the vast majority of those affected were not offered shelter. Seattle’s Navigation Team, as managed by Mayor Jenny Durkan, has become part of the problem.
Still, effective solutions are within reach. The response from homeless service providers has, in fact, been swift and exemplary. Shelters are sanitizing surfaces every few hours, providing tools to increase hygiene and reduce transmission, and preparing to isolate and test those who show symptoms.
Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall has been opened as emergency overflow shelter space. Modular housing is being repurposed as respite beds, and a Kent motel has been purchased to use as a quarantine facility.
Seattle should quickly increase the number of tiny house villages and the amount of low-barrier emergency shelter that is open 24/7. Our city should also increase investment in basic hygiene. The mobile pit stops approved in the 2020 city budget, for example, should be brought online immediately.
The street paper movement, like everyone else, has been impacted by the virus. The International Network of Street Papers conference, scheduled for this June in Milan, has been postponed to 2021. Throughout the world, papers like Real Change are stepping up to protect our vendors.
Real Change and other Pacific Northwest street papers are seeing about a 20 percent drop in sales. We expect this may get worse before it gets better. Some of our regular services, such as foot care and the veterinary services van, have been suspended as under-resourced health professionals triage their response.
Vendors report that you can’t sell papers to people who aren’t there. Places like Pioneer Square, Pike Place Market and Seattle Center have emptied out as many of us work from home and avoid social gatherings. In some cases, vendors have been ostentatiously shunned.
We’ve lowered the price of Real Change to vendors through March. We’re giving out whatever hygiene supplies we can get, and providing what extra comforts we can. Like everyone else, we’re stressing the importance of hand-washing and covering your cough.
One simple way readers can help is to support your vendor through Venmo, the peer-to-peer cashless payment app. If you know your vendor’s name and ID number, you can donate to them at @Real-Change any time you like.
If you don’t know your regular vendor’s name, we can probably help. Many have a regular location, and vendor program manager Rebecca Marriott (206-441-3247 x221) is happy to take your call.
Times like this reveal what we’re made of. We appreciate our caring community more than ever, and wish you all health and happiness.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace. He can be reached at director (at) realchangenews (dot) org
Read more in the Mar. 11-17, 2020 issue.