The Homeless are Immune to COVID-19
A few weeks ago, I was chatting with some family members, and I found out they equivocally believe the homeless are immune to COVID-19. To my outrage, their rationale is: the homeless already live on the streets in precarious conditions, carry so many diseases, and use such high quantities of illicit medication that COVID-19 surely can’t affect them.
What?! How can they even think something like that?! It is exactly the opposite! The homeless need help and they shouldn't be “living” on the streets. Society makes us believe such lies, so they don’t have to care about the subject.
Contempt towards those living on the streets here in Brazil is usual, they are invisible to society, but we should not accept it. The fact that our political, economic, and cultural system despises some lives is revolting. We must face this perversity by insistently denouncing society’s indifference.
The coronavirus pandemic arrived, took hold, and mobilized social, political, and economic reactions in all sectors of society and nations worldwide. This unprecedented global tragedy has imposed numerous challenges on the increasingly interconnected international community. Vulnerable people, such as the homeless, are the ones who always suffer the most in these cases.
Governments were supposed to take effective measures to prevent these individuals from being severely affected. On the contrary, we have seen misinformation and discrimination towards those who already face so many adversities in their daily lives, which the pandemic made unbearable.
Homelessness is a long-standing public, social, urban, and humanitarian problem of every city in the world. This issue calls into question the ability of democracies to reintroduce vulnerable populations into society. The homeless shouldn’t be seen as a threat to us. They need to be welcomed and helped, especially when we face a serious problem like COVID-19.
In Brazil, we constantly have to deal with misinformation, government denial, and social distancing violations, worsening the severity of the pandemic. The delay in the government’s decision to contain the spread of the virus has turned the already precarious public health conditions into a calamity, with overcrowded hospitals, closed shops, unemployment, and soaring deaths.
We’ve been living in chaos! The primary campaign to solve the problem is “stay at home, practice social distancing, wear masks, wash your hands constantly, use hand sanitizer.” But wait for a second… most Brazilians don’t even have that as an option.
As is expected, the pandemic is causing an increase in homelessness as the global economy slows down and unemployment rates soar. Brazil is a country of continental dimension with strong social and cultural contrasts, economic diversities, and many adversities. Most of its population does not have conditions to contain the disease because they live in overcrowded places that lack basic sanitation — what we call favelas. And what about the homeless who already face so many difficulties?
According to Brazilian law, the definition of homelessness is a “population group that has in common extreme poverty, interrupted or weakened family ties and the absence of regular conventional housing, that uses the public streets and degraded areas as a place to live and sustain themselves, temporarily or permanently, as well as reception units for temporary overnight stays or as temporary housing.”
The pandemic’s advance and the delay in its resolution represent a challenge to the Brazilian government and society. The homeless bring together all sorts of problems and demands that are often underestimated and treated with indifference in large urban centers. How often do we see people on the street and pass them by obliviously as if they’re just part of the landscape? Should they be invisible? I don’t think so…
Preventive measures are almost impossible for those who don’t have a roof over their heads. Also, they are already exposed to so many ailments that COVID-19 would probably be deadly for them. And if they get really sick, will they have adequate hospitalization and treatment? Moreover, the sudden limitation of social circulation on the streets has worsened their struggle, as they face greater scarcity of work, income, and donations, which deepened the social gap.
Living on the streets is rather an imposition than an option
Although some people may choose to live on the streets for a false sense of freedom, most of them end up there because of dire living conditions. The absence of family ties, domestic violence and abuse, loss of self-esteem, alcoholism, drug use, mental illness, and unemployment are common causes.
These individuals already live in precarious circumstances, had no opportunities and choices in life other than those imposed on them by society, lack of guidance, and no education. If they had a chance to choose, do you think they would prefer working, having a roof over their head, and a better life or staying on the streets in suffering?
The Brazilian population living on the streets exceeded 220,000 in March 2020 and increased by almost 12% last year. As the pandemic advances, they face more difficulties in accessing hygiene, water, and food. And even if they wanted to leave the streets, there is no public shelter for everyone.
In Brazil, most people living on the streets are young men of color between 18 and 55 years old, seeking the streets for temporary reasons, but the situation becomes permanent. Half of the homeless have been sleeping on the streets or in a public shelter for more than two years. And one-third of the total population has been in this condition for more than 5 years, which reinforces the fact that once you live on the streets, the chances of getting out are minimal.
The distress and the lack of healthy living conditions lead the homeless to make wrong decisions using drugs and alcohol to escape reality. The use of narcotic substances is regular among them, who commit acts of violence such as stealing and drug dealing, worsening their circumstances.
Living on the streets is painful! Having to deal daily with violence, lack of basic sanitation and hygiene, hunger, and abandonment is disturbing, to say the least. Another difficulty they face is no vacancy in public shelters, a chronic problem in most cities in Brazil. This leads the homeless to seek refuge in abandoned buildings, public squares, under marquees, or bridges from where they end up being removed. As you can see, most of the time, they have no option but to suffer.
Public policies exist but they are not enough
The pandemic has increased the vulnerability of those who live on the streets, which demands more intense action from the authorities. Brazilian constitutional law guarantees all citizens the right to housing and human dignity.
Usually, social assistance policies to the homeless are federal government’s, the states’, and the municipalities’ shared responsibility, who must implement social programs to relieve the daily hardships that the homeless go through. But, those responsible despise the problem and do almost nothing to solve it. The number of homeless people continues to increase, and they are exposed to all sorts of undignified treatments.
During the pandemic, all the existing issues were intensified. The Brazilian government has set up some emergency measures to mitigate them, meeting some of the homeless needs for subsistence through cash grants, food, and hygiene products distribution.
Also, the government stipulated an emergency income to be paid to low-income people, informal workers, and people living on the streets. However, it was inefficient because the requirements to get it — registration through a mobile app, several official identifications, and having a bank account — hinder them from receiving the amounts. Unfortunately, the efforts have not been enough. There is a Brazilian saying for that: “to try covering the sun with a sieve.”
The Brazilian government usually does not effectively meet the needs of these vulnerable people. It is necessary to provide more public shelters, distribute more food and hygiene products. It should also arrange service and counseling centers for alcohol and drug users, treat people with mental disorders, and specific initiatives for homeless children and teenagers. The strengthening of the social protection system is the only way to establish the means to help the homeless and prevent more people from joining them.
The government’s social measures also lack adequate housing policies. Although there are housing programs for low-income people, the homeless are not eligible. Thus, they often occupy abandoned properties that serve as precarious solutions. Housing policies implementation will guarantee a home and consequent access to public services, education, and possibilities of overcoming the street situation.
The Brazilian culture is intolerant, discriminatory, and prejudiced. Our biggest challenge is to elaborate protective public policies to the homeless and provide them work, food, and housing — a better life — to end this problem in society now and for the good of all.
Hopefully, the government will maintain its efforts at helping vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 crisis (and after it is over). We cannot simply accept its negligence to the least privileged citizens, forgotten on the streets, to their own devices. The homeless should have a minimum of dignity in their lives. Every human being must have a chance to thrive.
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