A Broader View: Those at risk on our streets
A makeshift tent shelters a family as the city of St. Louis enters the winter months. | Al Neal / People's World

In the early morning hours, our eyes adjust to the golden haze beneath an indifferent city skyline. The flicker of red taillights, the smell of noxious exhaust fumes, and the orchestral cadence of honking and revving engines assault our senses. It isolates us within a car’s four doors and obscures the life happening all around us.

And isolation, done for the sake of health—ours and that of others—as a pandemic rages beyond our front doors, is an act, and now a concept. It further removes us from visualizing the plight of those unable to shelter within closed doors, within the warmth and comfort many of us take for granted.

As city after city nationwide entered mandated lockdowns earlier this year, the health and well-being of those human beings calling the street home depended intimately on what response, if any, elected officials would have towards a vulnerable population: them.

The novel coronavirus, a medical and economic disruption to our daily life, has exposed the cracks and fissures within capitalism. It has exposed us to the depth, severity, and callousness of this free market system and its alarming impact on working people—more often, the working poor.

As calls for a vigorous and sincere response to this human crisis go largely answered, the death toll rises. And with it, unemployment. The U.S. unemployment rate has reached 15.3%, a level not seen since the Great Depression in 1933. Projections show an increase in homelessness by 40-45% by the end of 2020—an addition of nearly 25,000 people if homelessness follows unemployment as it has during the past century.

On any given frigid night in January 2019, roughly 568,000 people were experiencing homelessness in the U.S. And while two-thirds were able to find relative comfort within shelter before the current crisis, the coronavirus’s impact on the availability of resources for homeless individuals was immediately felt.

The rapid closure of shelters led to overcrowding in those fortunate enough to stay open while meagerly attempting to prevent viral outbreaks. Makeshift campsites, “Trump Towns,” sprung up overnight, giving us a look at our past, when shantytowns dubbed Hoovervilles dotted the cities during the Great Depression.

Homelessness, unemployment, and the coronavirus, however, share a particularly troubling factor: racial and ethnic disparity.

For Black Americans, 55 out of every 10,000 experience homelessness. For Latino communities, 22 out of every 10,000. When laid off or furloughed for any number of reasons (nowadays it’s usually coronavirus), 58% of Blacks and Latinos face “liquid asset” poverty—the lack of cash and savings to survive at the poverty level for three months. The national average of people experiencing liquid asset poverty is 37%.

African Americans make up more than 40% of the homeless population, but represent 13% of the general population. And those identifying as Hispanic make up 18% of the general population but 21% of the homeless population.

Al Neal / People’s World

Lives riddled with (preventable) poverty and injustice. Cause of death: the failures of politicians unable to address the severity of this pandemic.

Nationally, Black American deaths from the coronavirus are nearly two times greater than would be expected based on the overall population. In 42 states plus Washington, D.C., Hispanics/Latinos make up a greater share of confirmed cases than their share of the population. In eight states, it’s more than four times greater.

These shameful statistics are all but buried in the headlines. Political upheaval sells, while the lives of those impacted by such scandals are not worth noting.

Hope for a more humane future should weigh on us as we turn the page from 2020 to 2021.

Funding and policies that should be considered include:

  • $100 billion for Emergency Rental Assistance and Eviction Prevention;

  • A quicker system for distributing prevention funds that do not look like the traditional, slow-moving programs we know today;

  • A national, uniform and extended moratorium on evictions and foreclosures;

  • A universal housing voucher program to start paying rents before arrears grow;

  • Rent forgiveness and extended repayment plans for unpaid rent.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.