Not All Roofs Are the Same
This blog post written by Elena Zwirner, a behavioural ecologist interested in when and why pro-sociality – the tendency to help others – arises, and how it is maintained in a population. Her research paper Neighbourhood wealth, not urbanicity, predicts prosociality towards strangers was recently published by the Royal Society. (Zwirner Elena and Raihani Nichola 2020. Neighbourhood wealth, not urbanicity, predicts prosociality towards strangers. Proc. R. Soc. B.287 20201359. http://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2020.1359)
With the COVID-19 outbreak, we have witnessed nation-wide lockdowns all around the globe: people were asked to isolate and to only leave their home for the strict necessary – restrictions that many of us are facing again right now. The necessity for social isolation showed the great disparity between who could ‘stay at home’ and who could not. People experiencing homelessness were suddenly seen again, and actions to mitigate risks for them and others had to be taken quickly. The new challenges imposed by the pandemic required governments to act fast and with evidence-based targeted actions. Unfortunately, governmental actions have not been uniform across countries.
Many people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic felt left alone. In various countries, from Italy to Polynesia, governments have not taken strong actions and left local authorities without guidance [1-4]. In Italy, many community-based services have been disrupted and suspended. Associations that continue working try to bring basic hygiene products, masks as well as food, but maintaining hygiene measures or physical distancing is not a realistic proposition without additional available housing [2,4].
As first action, some USA countries asked people experiencing homelessness to sleep inside white squares painted on the pavement of large open spaces – at a distance, on the concrete, with no covering – in order to contain the spread of the new virus and maintain physical distancing . Things have not improved much. In Los Angeles rough sleepers have increased dramatically during the COVID-19 emergency: the lockdown has forced people that usually would count on temporary accommodations such as hostels or others’ hospitality, to live on the streets. At the same time, a lot of people lost their jobs and, as a consequence, had to leave their homes. Moreover, to contain the spread of the illness in detention facilities, the government released all non-violent inmates and the many found themselves with no place to stay [6,7].
Camps have spread in all neighbourhoods of Los Angeles. Of the 66000 homeless present in the county, the government aimed at housing to 15000 through the project ‘room key’, but as of May 2020 only 4000 people benefited of these accommodations. Despite being indispensable for safety and to maintain social distancing, many housing remain unfilled because guests need to follow prohibitive rules . For example, they do not accept substance users or do not provide support for those experiencing mental health issues.
This picture is not peculiar of the USA. Europe is struggling with housing and adherence to social distancing rules as well. At the centre Charles-Péan, of the ‘fondation de l’Armée du salut‘, they try to accommodate people with their needs, and users don’t have to choose abstinence to be accepted . Nevertheless, many guests are still unaware of the risks they incur outside and do not accept the new impositions. Béatrice Baal, the director of the centre, laments that the suppression of the collective and social life makes it hard to keep people in, as it is what the residents are really in need of, especially in these times.
These issues highlight the fact that housing is not the only matter. Governmental funding should also go towards addressing mental health issues, substance use, and other medical health issues.
Evidence from the Centre for Health and Development (CHAD) in collaboration with Expert Citizens, VOICES of Stoke-on-Trent and Public Health England [9,10], show that disruption to drug and alcohol services during lockdown presented major difficulties for customers. Nevertheless, this kind of support was only available in some of the emergency accommodation throughout the UK.
Even so, the UK government actions were rather quick and effective overall. With the ‘Everyone In’ scheme, the government demanded that local authorities move all people sleeping rough into emergency accommodations within only a few days . As of October 2020, an estimated 14,600 people have benefitted of the emergency accommodations [11,12]. More housing, lifting of restrictions to get in, and the reduced evictions in place since the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown greatly helped reducing the number of rough sleepers .
There is already a plan to keep the ‘Everyone In’ project going: the ‘homeless link’ charity promotes the #everybodyinforgood program , with which it suggests few points to follow post-pandemic. In particular, they stress the need to keep accommodating those people that lack appropriate housing and they urge the government to commit to long-term funding for homelessness support services . The challenge now is to maintain these goals. There is an indisputable necessity for studies highlighting gaps in the support for the homeless population and for evidence based interventions [16,17].