As many states have now begun to report demographic data about who is getting sick and who is dying from COVID-19, it should come as no surprise that the pandemic is hitting Black communities particularly hard. We know in general that Black people are less likely to live in neighborhoods where healthy foods are readily available, more likely to live in substandard housing, and have less access to health care or lack insurance – to name just a few social determinants of health. COVID-19 poses a higher risk to black people because of underlying health, social, and economic disparities rooted in historical and structural racism.
We might not currently know the housing status of the reported positives and of those succumbing to COVID-19 across the nation, but we can draw some reasonable conclusions about people experiencing homelessness, racial disparities, and COVID-19 given what we know about our system already. Obviously, being homeless places a person at elevated risk for several reasons, such as the challenges to socially isolate and access basic sanitation while homeless. Since Black people are disproportionately impacted by homelessness it is certainly possible that they could bear the brunt of COVID-19 among the homeless population as well.
The Homeless System’s Responsibility
While there are outside/structural factors in play, homelessness programs and systems have a significant and direct responsibility to ensure that they are not, themselves, having a disparate impact on people based on their race or ethnicity during the pandemic. A basic step in doing so is to collect, analyze, and act on data through a racialized lens – as many communities have done or started to do before COVID-19. Racial equity should be a part of the homelessness system’s response to the pandemic – data can help shape strategies about resources and service needs.
In 2019 the Alliance’s Racial Equity Network (REN), a group of local and state systems and program leaders and advocates who work together to advance and exchange ideas about racial equity, developed a racial equity data tool to measure whether outcomes vary depending on race and ethnicity at the systems or program levels. The tool is a simple dashboard that can help measure key portions of a homeless program or system.
In response to the pandemic, the REN developed a COVID-19 tab included in the original racial equity tool. This updated tab prompts users to measure key data about COVID-19 among the people in their homeless systems – including the presence of symptoms, the number of people tested and treated, and the number of people placed into isolation and permanent housing. It then allows the user to see if there are racial disparities between who needs these services, and who is receiving them.
Homeless leaders should prioritize racial equity and integrate this work into their COVID-19 responses. The COVID-19 tab of the racial equity tool might be a helpful way to get started.