In the tent cities of pandemic America, a grim future is darkening | Health news from the healthiest communities

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PHOENIX (Reuters) – Nadeen Bender stood outside her house, a tattered two-person tent, surrounded by the reused Amazon Prime boxes she uses to store her belongings. One by one, she checked the boxes to make sure nothing had been stolen overnight.

When asked about her Christmas plans, the slim 43-year-old said through a face mask “to try to avoid it”. Then she burst into tears.

The tent city that has served as Bender’s neighborhood for the past seven months is in the middle of downtown Phoenix, just down the road from luxury apartments and expensive restaurants.

To deal with the exploding homeless population and encourage social distancing during the pandemic, Maricopa County officials turned this pair of asphalt-covered parking lots into the newest homeless shelter in the region. The county has more than 7,500 people on the streets and nearly 5,000 dead from COVID-19.

Inside the overcrowded encampment, surrounded by security fencing and barbed wire, each family was assigned a plot of 12 feet by 12 feet, delimited by paint, to separate people as much as possible.

Phoenix is ​​just one example of a slow-motion disaster unfolding in many major US cities as the number of homeless people, already on the rise in recent years, increases during the global pandemic.

The virus presents an aggravating threat. Not only are these populations among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus, but by destroying millions of jobs, the pandemic threatens a wave of evictions that experts say could lead to a catastrophic displacement of homes and even more people living in the region. Street.

As cities face a severe blow to their tax base due to lockdowns aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, homeless advocates say the federal government must step in and estimate an additional $ 11.5 billion is needed immediately.

New funding for the homeless is not included in a $ 900 billion pandemic relief package passed by Congress on Monday. The bill’s fate was tossed the next day after outgoing President Donald Trump threatened not to sign it.

Meanwhile, the $ 4 billion provided earlier this year as part of the March CARES Act and US Department of Housing and Urban Development bailout is running out, advocates say.

“It’s not just the pandemic, it’s the financial fallout from the pandemic and the complete lack of a comprehensive response to the pandemic from the federal government,” said Diane Yentel, advisor to President-elect Joe Biden and the president of the Washington-National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Biden’s transition team did not respond to requests for comment. But addressing the affordable housing crisis was a pillar of his campaign platform and included a commitment to spend $ 640 billion over 10 years to create affordable housing and “end” homelessness.

“The fight against homelessness remains the most pressing health equity challenge of our time. And it’s about to get worse, ”said Dr Howard K. Koh, professor at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health who chairs his new initiative on health and homelessness.

As the coronavirus began to ravage the United States in the spring of 2020, federal, state and local governments have temporarily banned many evictions, keeping an eye on the economic and health consequences of increasing homelessness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September followed a nationwide ban that the stimulus deal would extend until January 31.

So far, Congress has no clear plan for dealing with the expiration of the CDC ban, with up to 40 million people at risk of deportation, according to the Aspen Institute. Overnight, more than $ 70 billion will be owed in rents and utilities, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated the homeless population in the United States at nearly 600,000 in 2019, before the pandemic struck. The potential health repercussions of a significant increase in that number due to evictions and unemployment are enormous, exacerbated exponentially by the pandemic, according to academics and health experts.

Already homeless families with babies in New York City shelters are living amid mold and vermin, according to an audit released by the city’s comptroller on Monday. Subway closures between 1 and 5 a.m. for COVID cleanups have forced many of the city’s homeless people who go there to warm up to burrow deeper into the tunnels of the system or to freeze in the settlements tarpaulins and the slums of grocery carts that have become a feature of the city’s sidewalks.

Homeless people in New York City are dying from COVID at a rate 78% higher than the general population, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

In Los Angeles, several city council members want the city to use the convention center as a homeless shelter. San Diego has done it before – and now its convention center is suffering from a COVID-19 outbreak, with 190 residents and staff testing positive.

Another homeless shelter in Chicago is reeling from an epidemic just as freezing temperatures fuel demand.

Twenty-seven states that allowed local moratoriums on evictions to expire over the summer, before the CDC ban, had a 5.4 times higher COVID death rate, according to a report released Nov. 30 by researchers from Johns Hopkins University and four other universities.

The unshaded tent city of Phoenix is ​​called “The Zone” by its residents. Some of them call it “Trumpville”, an echo of the Depression-era slums named “Hoovervilles” in honor of President Herbert Hoover, accused of not doing enough to keep people in. shelter.

Hundreds of people in the area are crowded – often without masks, many living only in sleeping bags or on a tarp. Without running water or plumbing, simple sanitation protocols in a pandemic, such as hand washing, are difficult. Although the city has installed portable toilets and washing stations along the perimeter, feces and trash litter the property. In some places the stench is overwhelming.

COVID-19 is a constant concern. Those who test positive for the virus can check in at a 136-bed hotel provided by a non-profit organization – if they can secure a spot. If they prefer to stay on the street, there is a “shelter in place” which contains food, water, hygiene products, masks and a tent.

Bender, a former adoptive mother with the leather tan of someone who lives outside, said the homeless population has become more varied since the start of the pandemic – she has met a former doctor, a paralegal and even an opera singer.

“A lot of us want to work, we want to get off the streets,” she said.

But the pandemic has made that even more impossible, she said.

“I can’t even log in” to apply for jobs, she said, “because the libraries are closed.” His congressional stimulus check? “How could I even sign up for this or get this without a computer or an address?” “

“I didn’t think my life could get any worse,” Bender said. “But he did.”

(Reporting by Michelle Conlin; Editing by Tom Lasseter and Sonya Hepinstall)

Copyright 2020 Thomson Reuters.

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