Bramson: Poverty and homelessness in the time of Coronavirus
Photo courtesy of the CDC.

We’ve been in a crisis for a long time. One where families choose between paying rent and buying food, where kids triple and quadruple up in dingy rooms just to get by, where disabled people sleep and sometimes die on the streets. With tens of thousands of people impacted in California alone, we’re talking about a catastrophic disaster by any measure and no real end in sight.

Now, for all those poor folks just barely hanging on, we have a yet another new threat which may rip the rug out from under them.

With the continued spread of the novel coronavirus, it’s clear to see that our poorest neighbors are the ones who will be hit the hardest first. And getting sick might actually be the least of their worries right now.

COVID-19 itself doesn’t make distinctions for class, but the response to stop the virus is going to have some very disproportionate economic impacts. Just look at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations: stay home from work, prepare for school closures, avoid large gatherings. The one common thread here is that the business of everyday life is about to change.

If you have a strong safety net intact, then you’ll probably be fine for a while. But for someone without a savings account, a worker barely making a living in the gig economy or the service industry, or parents unable to afford childcare, we’re talking about a new “normal” that could have terrifying financial consequences. Extremely-low income households already exist in a fragile housing ecosystem here in Santa Clara County, paying more than 50% of their income on rent. If these disruptions continue too long, many more people might end up homeless.

Once forced outside, things will only get worse for our residents. In times of natural disaster, we typically turn to mass shelter as a way to provide immediate relief. But with this virus, social distancing is the answer. People need their own private space to get better and the last thing we’ll want to do is put individuals in close proximity and risk further infection. Something many of us have been saying for a long time is that everyone needs a home. In many ways, coronavirus is serving to underscore that essential truth right now.

Fortunately, our leaders are trying hard to get ahead of the curve. On Friday, Mayor Liccardo called for an eviction moratorium in San Jose. If people can’t pay their rent because of work stoppages and shutdowns, they shouldn’t be forced out of their homes. It’s true this action might put hardships on the owners of the properties as well, so we’ll likely need to see our financial institutions follow suit, increasing their flexibility on mortgage payments.

The point is that there will be ripple effects with any action to help, so it’s going to take a village now more than ever before. We have to think and act as a community to get through this challenging time.

That’s why it’s also heartening to see some big tech companies look towards the need first. Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins made the public commitment to continue to pay wages for hourly employees who might be forced to miss work in the months ahead. Several other corporations have also already done the same. Putting people over profits by limiting the uncertainty of whether or not a cafeteria worker will be able to pay their rent next month is the kind of critical leadership we absolutely must demand right now if we want to make it through this fire unscathed.

The truth is we’re all going to have some part to play as this story unfolds. If and when things get bad, your neighbor, friend, coworker, or even family member might need just a little extra support to make it. Silicon Valley Community Foundation has already activated a fund where people can donate to help others out locally and trusted community-serving organizations like Sacred Heart Community Service are most certainly planning to do everything within their power to continue to provide assistance to those facing financial uncertainty. Odds are, though, that it won’t be enough and we will all need to do more.

So, take good care of yourself and your loved ones in the months ahead. But remember that while isolating the virus is key, coming together as a community is the only way we’re going to make it through this and truly begin to recover.

San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at rbramson@sbcglobal.net or follow @rbramson on Twitter.

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