With no roof over their heads and no food to sustain themselves, the homeless around the world are one of the most vulnerable groups in light of the global pandemic.

As cities grow, so does the homeless population. Living on the streets, relying on donations, millions of homeless people have no defence against the coronavirus (Covid-19), which has already claimed at least 15,000 lives around the world. With several cities being placed under lockdown to safeguard the healthcare infrastructure from crashing, tens of thousands of homeless people seem to be completely ignored and treated as a low priority group. 

Is there a way for homeless people to self-isolate and find food?

About 150 million people are homeless worldwide, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In the US alone, about 554,000 people are living on the streets or in shelters, while the UK’s homeless population is pegged at 307,000. Other European countries share a similarly high rate of homelessness including Germany with 650,000 people and France with 141,500.

In light of self-quarantine and strict advisories passed by various governments, asking their citizens to stay indoors, food banks and soup kitchens are unable to distribute. As a result, hundreds of homeless are suffering from malnutrition, desperately relying on non-profit donations and charities to get by. 

For instance, food banks in the UK provide food to an estimated 14 million in poverty. Many of these food banks work with volunteers, mostly retired people who are now at home self-isolating. With their fragile immune systems, the homeless are in need of more nutrition than ever but with food banks, soup kitchens are closed, there is nowhere to turn to. 

Only last Saturday, the London Mayor announced the city will house around 11,000 rough sleepers at two hotels to self-isolate amid the coronavirus outbreak. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is accused of not taking precautions against the coronavirus sooner, announced £3.2m of funding to help get people off the streets, offering accommodation for up to 6,000 which is still short.

A homeless British holds a sign reading
A homeless British holds a sign reading "What about us Boris - were we gunna isolate? Help!", criticizing PM Boris Johnson’s neglect of the country’s vulnerable members. (ISABEL INFANTES / AFP)

As official food distribution to the homeless is on hold, individuals are taking charge. Volunteers in the US, UK, France and Germany are looking for ways to help the homeless, delivering them daily food and even hygiene products hoping to prevent any coronavirus outbreak among the most vulnerable. While some are donating hand sanitisers and portable sinks that are installed in places where the homeless set their tents most densely, some deliver food to the homeless as much as they can. However, even this is not an easy task. Due to panic buying, the shelves of the supermarkets are almost cleared. Volunteers and charities report that they cannot find enough food to distribute the homeless. And with the economy flailing in Europe and the US, it seems like more and more people will be out of jobs and in need of food relief in the near future.

Food might be scarce for the homeless but so is shelter. Although self-isolation is the best way to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the homeless can hardly follow this advice. On March, 20, French police issued fines to hundreds of homeless in Paris, Lyon and Bayonne for violating lockdown rules. “We request that clear instructions be given… so that these sanctions cease immediately,” Florent Gueguen, head of the France's Federation of Solidarity (FAS) told AFP. French authorities say several dozen homeless people have been infected with the coronavirus. In order to stop the spread, the government released a statement informing that hotel rooms will be prepared to accommodate the homeless and various centres will work as temporary shelters for the homeless. Although 3,000 beds will be ready for the homeless in the upcoming days, it is hardly enough for France’s homeless population of roughly 150,000 people.

On the other hand, crowded homeless shelters pose more danger than relief. Homeless people in the US refuse to go to shelters, claiming that they will have no chance to avoid contracting the virus in overcrowded and unsanitary shelters. Residents of California’s shelters, report empty soap dispensers, a lack of toilet paper, no hot water and broken sinks. In a statement, Gavin Newsom, Governor of California, shared some worrisome data and claimed that more than 60,000 homeless people could become ill with the coronavirus in California over the next two months. Given the fact that the homeless who are lucky enough to find shelter are living in overcrowded rooms, Newsom’s estimation seems highly optimistic.

Things are far worse for Los Angeles with a high population of homeless people. Gatherings have been banned over the outbreak however, homeless people still remain on the street, often packed in tent camps with no chance for self-isolation. According to the Los Angeles Times, the local government issued a law which required the homeless to take down these tents during the day, further exposing them to the risk of contracting and spreading coronavirus.

People living on the street are the most vulnerable as it is easy for them to contract the novel virus. Sleeping out in the open, they can easily fall ill and have no means of getting medical treatment. Furthermore, life on the street takes its toll on people. Doctors highlight the fact that the homeless have very weak immune systems and even the young cannot even overcome mild diseases let alone coronavirus. 

A 2016 study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that people living in poorer neighborhoods during flu seasons were hospitalised in connection with the illness at a higher rate than residents of more affluent communities. A study that observed a hospital in Washington, US, found that 32 percent of those hospitalised for respiratory diseases were homeless, compared with 6.5 percent of all patients hospitalised. Even without a pandemic, 400 rough sleepers in San Francisco, US, have died on the streets in the last three years. With the coronavirus pandemic spreading, the homeless once again face the ignorance of the governments.  

With no health insurance, it is unlikely the homeless will be able to get the medical care they need if they fall sick. Although the US has guaranteed free coronavirus tests for those who do not have health insurance, the line for testing is so long that it will take ages for the homeless to access testing. Although some states are offering testing to the homeless exhibiting symptoms, and quarantine, there is no official statement as to how they will be treated.


[NOTE: The article came from TRT World’s Eyes on Discrimination (EOD) Centre, which monitors and reports on offences, hate crimes and discrimination on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, national origin and religion, or other related social categories.]

Source: TRTWorld and agencies