By Amanda Lynn Barker
As the social fallout from the pandemic continues to accelerate across Cincinnati, social service providers and street outreach workers are reporting rapidly increasing numbers of people who are experiencing homelessness outside. This is not surprising, given the political factors that are exacerbating an already tenuous economic environment. In his April 2, 2020, press conference, Governor DeWine announced that over 400,000 Ohioans have applied for unemployment benefits in the past two weeks. An article in The Columbus Dispatch published on April 9, 2020, states that, “in the past three weeks, 696,519 claims have been filed in Ohio. That is about 12% of the state’s jobs.” Approximately 200,000 people in Ohio are filing for unemployment benefits every week.
Meanwhile, the state of Ohio has not passed any policies to help renters during this public health and economic crisis. As of March 31, 2020, only 12 states remain that have taken no measures to limit or stop evictions. Ohio is one of those states. Once the pandemic is over, anyone who has not been able to pay rent will face possible court hearings and a stain on their financial records that will jeopardize their future housing stability. The economic collapse from the pandemic; and the local, state, and federal governments’ apparent unwillingness to appropriately allocate resources, has pushed Cincinnati and Hamilton County residents already on the brink into homelessness.
We are crawling toward the projected peak infection rate, currently set for mid-April according to recent data models. Organizations that distribute meals are reporting exponential increases in the number of people who need food. On March 24, 2020, Our Daily Bread distributed 164 lunch meals. Two weeks later on April 7, 2020, they served 350 lunch meals, a 113% increase. Additionally, St. Francis Seraph Ministries serves at least 250 breakfast and dinner meals daily. They report that typically, their numbers decrease throughout April, but this year, they are steadily increasing. Living outside, in a tent, or in a vehicle, does not provide access to food storage or preparation space. With more people currently experiencing homelessness outside as a direct result of the pandemic, it makes sense that organizations are providing more meals.
Of even more immediate concern is access to clean water. It sounds absurd to even write about needing access to clean water in a 21st century American city, but our infrastructure is more fragile than some of us would like to believe. Several years ago, I worked in disaster response and deployed to New Jersey following Hurricane Sandy. I was on one of the first flights from San Francisco into La Guardia after the airport had reopened. The city was still without power and all the roads flooded. It was an eye-opening experience to witness the lack of food and how quickly communication breaks down during extended periods of power outages. Not only did my cell phone battery die multiple times while I was delivering bottled water and blankets through hurricane-ravaged townships, but I was also quite hungry from having only plastic- wrapped pastries to eat for about five days. In some ways, this pandemic reminds me of a hurricane, but the damage is much slower to unfold and will create a more difficult transition for recovery. Furthermore, not all of us are experiencing this disaster equally. Some of us are cozy with full pantries of hand soap and toilet paper, and freezers stocked with frozen entrees from Trader Joes. Others now no longer have anywhere to wash their hands or their clothes.
Public restrooms throughout the city have been closed and public water fountains are turned off. Restaurants, coffee shops, community centers, and other spaces where people used to be able to use facilities or clean their hands are no longer open. Therefore, the significantly increasing numbers of people experiencing homelessness outdoors in Cincinnati have very limited or in some cases, ZERO access to restrooms, drinking water, or water to clean their hands. Currently, nobody who is living outdoors has access to shower facilities or laundry facilities. Our Daily Bread and Mary Magdalene House have both set up port-o-lets with handwashing capabilities outside of their facilities. Additionally, Cincinnati Water Works has set up two water spigots outside of Our Daily Bread for drinking water. These provisions are indeed a step forward, but they only meet some of the basic needs for some of the people living outdoors who are within the vicinity of these two organizations which are located very close to each other.
We need to do more. Although the reasons for closing the restrooms and turning off the water fountains makes sense, everyone still needs to have access to drinking water, and to water for handwashing, showering, and laundering clothes. These are basic human needs 100% of the time, and are of even greater importance to prevent illness such as Scabies, Hepatitis A, and trench foot; and also to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during our current pandemic. A coalition of 26 social service providers has requested the City of Cincinnati to finance, place, and service port-o-lets, handwashing stations, drinking water spigots, shower trucks, and laundry facilities at locations dispersed throughout the city. These will help meet the basic needs for the growing population of individuals who are experiencing homelessness outdoors.
Access to housing is directly related to healthcare. At its most fundamental level, housing provides running water for drinking and cleaning, facilities to prepare and store food, and space to sleep through the night without fear. It is protection from the elements. It is a place to rest, heal, and recover from any mental or physical distress that the mind or body experiences. Without housing first, sorting through further development is stunted.
At some point, this pandemic will end. As a city, we will need to evaluate the response and decide what systems are successful, and what needs to be redesigned. Cincinnati was experiencing a housing crisis before the pandemic, and now it is worse. The pandemic has illuminated a direct link between housing and health. It has also illuminated the ability of our social service providers to mobilize resources and to collaborate effectively, demonstrating a profound sense of resilience amidst uncertainty and shifting priorities. Today we need water, tomorrow we need a moratorium on evictions, and next week we need affordable housing for all to create a future that is healthier than our 2020 has been.