Not Everyone can “Stay at Home” - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Not Everyone can “Stay at Home”

In a moment where everyone is being asked to #stayhome, existing housing inequalities are even more apparent. What happens to those who have no home to quarantine in?

Flickr user Cragin Spring (CC)

Quarantining at home is a feasible option for people and families who have access to stable and healthy housing. It's not so easy for those that don't have somewhere to go.

Now more than ever, the relationship between housing stability and public health is clear. Housing is healthcare, especially when social distancing and self-isolation through staying home is a critical step for individuals to protect themselves and their communities from health risks.

However, we know that housing instability affected far too many Americans before this pandemic, and that the current moment is impacting different communities in different ways. To untangle how the pandemic is impacting specific populations, we took a closer look at a few specific groups: students, individuals coming out of incarceration, and individuals experiencing homelessness.

Stranded College Students

Many students are currently looking at displacement in a new light due to their own circumstances. With university shutdowns and cancelled programs, students - including myself - were left wondering what our next steps were. While a number of the over 670,000 students in the metropolitan Chicago area have family homes close by to return to, the institutional shutdowns still left many scrambling to find housing accommodations or transportation home. Those without options or resources to return to a home are stuck in Chicago without their school’s housing and food resources.

For those still in the region, businesses like Common have adapted by providing flexible lease agreements for college students looking for a place to stay. In addition, several Chicago hotels like Hotel Essex in the South Loop has provided a discounted rate of $59/night to displaced students. Yet this option adds up to $1652/week which is money that current unemployed university kids cannot always afford. Making their situation more challenging, many college students did not qualify for the federal stimulus check.

Formerly Incarcerated Individuals

The Cook County Jail currently is among the largest known-source hotspots of COVID-19 in the county, with more than 500 detainees and nearly 200 employees testing positive. Appropriately, Governor Pritzker ordered several hundred individuals to be released, though we still face a public health crisis as well as a humanitarian one, even for those released.

For these initial 300 that were released from Cook County Jail, most were pregnant women and low-level offenders, vetted to insure they had a home to go back to to practice social distancing. But with an already difficult reentry, recent inmates are returning to a world of limited contact and resources, making it even more of an isolating experience. Reentry only works if they have somewhere safe to go post release.

Organizations like TASC are working virtually to help establish connections for released inmates, such as by providing numbers to reach Medicare personnel. In a world with unprecedented unemployment, regular reentry tasks like job searching has been altered.

For those who are qualified to be released but have no home to go back to, accessing reentry housing is even more crucial. One policy reform that can be considered is eliminating housing restrictions for individuals with records, such as in public housing units. This change would help fill vacant housing while also providing a secure place for released individuals to practice safe social distancing.

Individuals Experiencing Homelessness

For those currently facing homelessness, this public health crisis that requires sheltering-in-place exposes how critical housing is in staying healthy. While some work is being done to ensure shelter for those experiencing homelessness, further interventions need to be made— especially to address the post-COVID19 conversation around homelessness.

Currently, the YMCA of Metro Chicago has converted space to accommodate for more than 400 displaced individuals. Working with shelters and the Chicago Health Department, the Y has been providing food, bedding, and hygiene kits. On top of this, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been working with various hotels to provide quarantine spaces for individuals at higher risk who are not otherwise able to safely shelter in place. While these measures may help address the problem of overcrowded city shelters, it brings up the question of what the next step is. Once sheltering in place orders are over, what housing interventions will be provided for these individuals?

Federal stimulus packages need to further consider those experiencing homelessness during this time and what life is going to look like once these individuals are removed from the hotels. Emergency housing stabilization and rehousing programs are crucial in addressing homelessness within our cities, particularly Chicago.

We Need a Bold Response and Recovery

Too many Illinoisans were already housing unstable or experiencing homelessness before the pandemic. Too many are currently facing greater risk for contracting COVID-19 because they do not have access to a safe and stable home. College students without a home to return to or the ability to travel home, individuals experiencing homelessness currently in shelters or encampments, and individuals being released from incarceration are only a few of our fellow Illinoisans experiencing unique needs. There are countless others: undocumented and mixed-status families that were excluded from federal stimulus relief, survivors of domestic abuse, multi-generational households, Black communities that are being hit hardest by the pandemic, and more.

As all levels of government look to craft policy responses to the current moment, they need to center the circumstances of all impacted communities. Without bold action to immediately house all communities, the health crisis will continue to exacerbate already existing disparities.

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