News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

April 03, 2020

Covid-19 is a major threat to Oakland’s houseless population

By Ruwi Shaikh

The outbreak of Covid-19 is endangering everyone. But our houseless population is at especially big risk of infection. They live on the streets, often in makeshift tents or in poorly maintained shelters, where they are constantly exposed to hazardous conditions like lack of sanitation, and clean water — which puts them at a higher risk for contracting Covid-19. 

California has the largest houseless population in the U.S. In Oakland, 4,071 people live in streets and shelters every single night, of which 861 are sheltered and 3,210 are unsheltered.

Shelters are severely underfunded, despite the pleas of activists and advocates. These shelters lack soap, toilet paper, and hot water. The sinks are broken and there’s usually blood on the walls. These conditions, unsafe and unhygienic in any circumstances, will worsen the spread of the virus. Much of the shelter population is older, with preexisting health conditions from the harsh realities of street living. When Covid-19 hits these unsanitized shelters, it will inevitably spread like wildfire and sicken or kill many of Oakland’s most vulnerable residents.

African Americans in Oakland will be among the most affected. Oakland’s houseless population is 70% black, with camping sites designated specifically for black and Latinx population only. The average rent for an apartment in Oakland is around $2,470 per month — an amount that is out of reach for many black people due to persistent racial inequality in educational opportunities and employment. 

What is the state doing to protect the houseless?

To address the possible spread of Covid-19, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has set up hand washing stations in the city’s houseless encampments. However, the majority of them don’t work, and the ones that do dispense cold water at a trickle. When San Francisco Chronicle reporter Otis R. Taylor Jr. interviewed a young houseless man at one of these encampments, he found that most of the camp’s residents were not aware of the threat posed by the coronavirus. Local authorities’ lack of concern for the city’s houseless population likely explains the shoddiness of the handwashing stations, as well as the failure to provide the houseless with vital information about the virus.

The state has also leased two hotels in Oakland to house the houseless during the pandemic. Gov. Gavin Newsom has suggested that by moving the houseless into indoor spaces, they can limit the spread of the virus and protect the community. The county is prioritizing people who test positive for Covid-19 or show symptoms for placement in these hotels. But many infected people don’t have symptoms, and can spread the virus without knowing they have it. 

Tests for the coronavirus are still not easily available. Due to lack of public health education and lack of trust in the healthcare system, many houseless might not even try to get tested. We need to house everyone, not just the handful that has tested positive for the virus.

We need to demand more

What Oakland and California is now doing for the houseless population is better than nothing. But what about long-term solutions? It doesn’t look like Covid-19 is going away any time soon, and temporary accomodations do little for those who will be displaced again after the worst of the crisis has passed. 

Our concern for the houseless cannot simply end when the outbreak subsides. The pandemic has pushed leaders to address the conditions of the houseless population. However, putting only a few people up in hotels is a Band-Aid solution.

We must hold the state to higher standards, during the crisis and after. On March 24, Oakland and San Francisco each received $3.2 million to tackle houselessness, and we need to demand transparency in the distribution of these funds. We must demand that the state act quickly to ensure everyone has adequate shelter.  And we need to hold politicians like Mayor Schaaf — whose pre-Covid policies included using the police to clear encampments — accountable for keeping our houseless population safe.