Homelessness is NOT Just a Pandemic Problem

Even before COVID-19, Los Angeles’ issues of homelessness and the housing crisis were deeply intertwined. At a time when rent prices and unemployment rates are at a record high, with more and more families depending on state and federal support to survive, it comes as no surprise that both issues are at the forefront of the pandemic. Communities, particularly low-income, black, indigenous and communities of color, are faced with difficult decisions, having little access to steady income and resources to stay housed.

The Epidemic Behind the Pandemic: Homelessness

Prior to COVID, tens of thousands of Angelenos were reported to be experiencing homelessness. The most recent count from the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority (LAHSA) showed nearly 59,000 people were without homes in 2019. However, even more terrifying is the number of families on the verge of falling into homelessness.

An estimated 600,000 people in Los Angeles County spend 90% of their income on rent and housing, and rental prices are still trending upward. Since 2000, the median rent in Los Angeles has increased 32% while the median renters’ income has actually dropped 3%. Over half a million LA County residents are one rent increase, one sick day, or one simple accident away from joining the 59,000 people without a safe place to call home. Despite the overwhelming number of individuals experiencing homelessness, there has not been adequate local action to address the crisis.

A Crisis That Drove Swift Action

Now that the coronavirus pandemic has taken hold in LA, and thousands are out of work, without pay, and at home, local authorities are stepping in to ease the impact. In terms of housing, City and LA County have issued temporary rent freezes and eviction moratoriums. While these measures are not perfect solutions, they are the largest rent stabilization and homelessness prevention efforts the city and county have historically implemented.

On top of that, Governor Gavin Newsom released a plan to find empty motel and hotel rooms to provide shelter for people living on the street, and help contain the spread of the virus. The plan, known as Project Roomkey, includes 15,000 hotel or motel beds just in LA County.

This is the kind of swift and intentional response needed to help vulnerable populations during this pandemic. It will slow the spread of the coronavirus and lessen the impact it has on our community, healthcare system, and economy. However, it raises an important question, why did it take a pandemic to act on LA’s housing and homelessness crisis?

The Cost of Not Addressing the Homelessness Crisis

LA’s homeless population of 59,000 people –twice the size of the average American city– was already a monumental crisis. Especially when considering all the health and economic impacts of homelessness. Neighbors without homes experience disproportionate rates of mental and physical health issues and have a premature mortality rate that is 3-4 times higher than the general public.

A person experiencing homelessness does not have access to safe drinking water, is exposed to extreme weather conditions, and is more likely to be exposed to communicable diseases like the coronavirus. In a 2009 study by United Way, the total cost of public services for two years on the streets was estimated at $187,288 compared to $107,032 for two years in permanent housing with support services—a savings of $80,256 or almost 43%.  In terms of healthcare costs, people living on the streets stay an average three days longer in the hospital than medically necessary (for each 10 days they are there), which can be upwards of $11,400 in cost for care. These extra expenses are part of the reason National Health Foundation launched and has been successfully operating Recuperative Care facilities across Southern California for over a decade now.

Our neighbors are losing their lives to homelessness and it’s costing us more
to do nothing about it than if we housed them.

Lessons From COVID

If there is anything to learn from the City’s, County’s and State’s coronavirus response in regard to the homelessness and housing crisis, it is that we have had the solutions to address the problem all along. Strong rent stabilization measures have been desperately needed for years now. LA needed more shelter beds and recuperative care beds. And we have needed a government that provides adequate resources to get people back on their feet during and after a crisis.

But instead of focusing on the past, let us enthusiastically declare that we have the solutions for moving forward. Together, as community-based non-profits, business owners, healthcare and hospital systems, landlords, government agencies, and community members, let us remember what we are doing right now for all those experiencing or on the verge of homelessness.

Then let us ask ourselves, with all of these solutions being put into place, should we really go back to the way it was, once the pandemic is over? Could this crisis—instead of being a pause in society—be viewed as a giant leap FORWARD in our efforts to better serve the most vulnerable? It can if we start viewing these solutions as more permanent fixes to our most pressing, systemic problems.


This article is Part II of National Health Foundation’s #NotJustAPandemicProblem series that highlights pre-existing health inequities in under-resourced communities that are being thrust into the spotlight as a result of COVID-19.