Recently I saw a suggestion from a concerned citizen on Facebook that underscored so much of what we get wrong when things go wrong. The woman was asking local elected officials to mandate quarantine for “help-averse” homeless folks if they presented with symptoms of COVID-19, or coronavirus. The reason, she said, was that if people in encampments or otherwise sleeping outside weren’t forcibly kept away from the rest of the population, they might further spread the disease.
This, of course, is completely unconstitutional. But unconstitutional detentions have gotten the green light under the current administration, so we’ll temporarily ignore the fact that you can’t detain someone on suspicion of disease just because they’re visibly homeless.
We can also set aside the fact that housed people aren’t exactly a paragon of health, either. They do an outstanding job of going to work when they’re sick and failing to wash their hands properly or often enough.
However, since we don’t have to see people who live inside, we don’t have think about their poor health habits. Homeless folks live their lives visibly and in public, making them an easy target for stigma and fear.
But, like just about every other social ill, outbreaks of contagious disease put homeless folks in positions of increased vulnerability.
They are already often immunocompromised due to existing diseases or health conditions, which rendered them homeless in the first place, and thus, more likely to die from a contagious disease. Homeless folks also have less access to necessary disease-prevention mechanisms, like hot running water or a clean, warm place to rest.
As for being “help-averse” (her words), the “help” that’s typically offered is exactly the kind which is not helpful during an outbreak or otherwise. Shelters are notorious for close quarters, fleas and bedbugs — basically a breeding ground for disease.
On the other side, though, life in an encampment is, could be a better way to practice what the Centers for Disease Control call “social distancing.”
Instead of worrying about how a homeless person could harm you, a housed person, why not ask what can be done to help those in need? A pandemic is a terrible time to disregard the rights of American citizens. It’s as good a time as any, though, to ask how we’re failing one another.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer living in Seattle. Her work has appeared in The Nation, the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, GOOD, Democracy Journal, Bust Magazine, Seattle Met and other places. She is currently working on a book about Lou Graham.
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