Biden’s COVID response treats those without homes as an afterthought

February 8, 2022. Raleigh News & Observer. By Trisha Dilapati.

Trisha Dalapati, 2021-22 A. C. Reid Schweitzer Fellow, Duke School of Medicine student

The Biden administration rolled out plans in January to help Americans get N95 masks and at-home testing to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. While impressive, the plans leave behind more than 500,000 vulnerable individuals, including 10,000 North Carolinians, who are often overlooked in our country — those suffering from homelessness and housing insecurity. N95 respirators are becoming available at local pharmacies and community health centers. Anyone can pick them up for free. Unfortunately, “anyone” potentially excludes people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity, who often cannot access mainstream news and rely on information sharing through word of mouth. Even with information, individuals experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity face logistical nightmares. I co-lead WellNest, a Duke University student-run housing support program, and have witnessed community members struggling with reliable transportation and money for ride-sharing, inconvenient public transit, and physical disability and chronic health conditions. I recently helped a wheelchair-dependent community member into his new home. Right after telling me about the much-needed rehabilitation for his knee, he mentioned that the most reliable way to get a new mask was to get on a GoDurham bus.

Free at-home COVID-19 antigen tests are now available through the mail. But at-home tests require exactly what the name implies — a home — a physical, unchanging address. Testing among people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity is already meager. In July 2021, the Department of Health and Human Services finally earmarked $80 million in testing for individuals who are homeless or in congregate settings. Free at-home tests, without continued investment in testing for individuals without an address, unfairly ignore disproportionate risks conveyed by congregate housing, difficulty accessing healthcare, and potential preexisting health conditions.

During the pandemic, the Biden Administration announced efforts through the American Rescue Plan to house individuals experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. In May 2021, 70,000 emergency housing vouchers — totaling about $5 billion — were distributed. These vouchers are tricky to use. I’ve worked with community members, from young parents to senior citizens, who’ve waited weeks to months for new housing. Meanwhile, they often continue to live unsheltered, in unsafe housing, or in congregate living spaces. Safe, affordable housing and services supporting continued housing are obviously musts. However, they are not the only timely solutions individuals facing homelessness and housing insecurity need. Our federal government needs to make tests and masks readily available at shelters, low-income housing communities, motels and hotels serving as temporary housing, and public transit hubs. In tandem, healthcare professionals, case workers, community agencies and volunteers such as myself who work with individuals suffering from homelessness and housing insecurity deserve a surplus of personal protective equipment and tests to distribute. The onus should not be on local groups to find these resources.

Americans without homes must not be an afterthought in COVID-19 responses. Dalapati is an MD/PhD student at Duke University and a program manager with WellNest Housing Support Program and a 2021-22 A. C. Reid Schweitzer Fellow.