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Being Poor and Being Sick: A Thin Line

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April 15. Today is the day that seven years of interviews with homeless people would come to fruition in the release of our book, The Man in the Dog Park, co-authored with a homeless man. It is a book about compassion and about blind spots, too, that let us see, among other things, how homelessness is more a casualty of being poor than it is a product of mental illness or addiction.

The thin line I came to see between being poor and being homeless is the same thin line we are now seeing between being poor and being sick. COVID-19 is revealing to us some disturbing truths in its clear, stark statistics.

If we are willing to open our eyes, we can see how poor people (disproportionately people of color) are dying at higher rates than others. We can see how the likelihood you have a pre-existing condition that enhances your virus danger is intimately tied to your economic strata; how poor families, cramped into tiny domestic spaces, have no saving option of separating onto different floors with different bathrooms if one person becomes ill; how the working poor have job categories—like nurse’s aide or elder care provider or factory line worker—where you cannot work at home to keep your job. There is no clearer time to see the tentacles of poverty than who and how many will die from this crisis.

The thin line I came to see between being poor and being homeless is the same thin line we are now seeing between being poor and being sick. 

The virus packs a double punch for those who are poor and homeless. Today, I would have thought I’d be going to work at the homeless shelter in my town, as I started doing regularly a couple of years ago as a volunteer. When the virus statistics began spiraling in mid-March, I wrote to the shelter manager that I would no longer be able to keep my commitment to come there. He was sympathetic and supportive; “Yes, I think it’s wise,” he wrote back. I am “old,” in the at-risk category, and everyone understands. I have a choice, regardless.

I worry about the many men and women in the shelter, particularly my age and older. The shelter is set up with rows of bunk beds, closely positioned to house as many clients as possible who want a place to sleep and a warm meal. People stand in a crunched line to get their food, use the same couple of bathrooms for the 150 people who are often there at one time. People cannot reasonably practice social distance.

The virus packs a double punch for those who are poor and homeless.

I heard through our grapevine about the first cases, people in the shelter with symptoms. Everyone is scrambling, doing the best they can. They are putting sick people in a low-end motel, with a staff member to look in on them. No one has N-95 masks or gowns. The shelter has put up makeshift boundaries (a wooden piece of rail, I think) around the reception desks so the staff have some measure of physical distance. It is all improvised, and the staff and residents all know that on some level it is a crap shoot.

Some homeless people may decide, perhaps rightly so, that their safest option is staying in the forest or on the streets. This can appear better than a shelter doing its best, but filled with coughing residents, kerchiefs for masks, and no guarantees. And so, I know the unsheltered will hang out during the day at an open drugstore, or library, or wander in a food store. How many people will be infected because “shelter in place” is not binding for those who have no safe space to shelter? Will our newspaper headlines be about the “dangerous homeless people infecting others” or will they sound the wake-up call about our interconnectedness, and the responsibility we have to look deeply at our own NIMBY efforts to keep affordable housing out of our neighborhood? 

The real testimony to our nation, and its future, is what lessons we will have learned when this COVID-19 episode is over.


Cathy A. Small is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at Northern Arizona University and a resident of Flagstaff, Arizona, where she enjoys life with her spouse, Phyllis, of thirty years. She is the author of Voyages and My Freshman Year.

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