The Intersection of Pandemics: How COVID-19 Exacerbated Homelessness

On March 13, 2020, the U.S. declared a national state of emergency. The COVID-19 virus was ramping up across the country, hitting some of our most vulnerable citizens the hardest. The contagion exacerbated conditions for all types of disparities—including homelessness. The typical risk factors for homelessness include poverty, incarceration, unemployment, and lack of affordable healthcare. The pandemic intensified these factors, effectively laying bare the vulnerability of our public health systems. Many found themselves experiencing several risk factors all at once, each crossing paths with the others and compounding their adverse effects. Individuals and families stood at a deadly intersection.

Intersectionality describes the situation where several factors collide to create the current condition. Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw first coined the term to describe how Black women’s oppression could not be reduced to either sexism or racism but must consider both since Black women lived at the intersection of both realities. It’s an apt term to understand the causes of homelessness in a COVID-era world. It allows us to see beyond shallow interpretations and realize the complexity of the issue, as people often face several contributing factors that lead to homelessness.

How the Pandemic Intensified Factors

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. experienced one of the most unprecedented spikes in unemployment rates in recent history—a 12.3% unemployment rate in Georgia alone during April 2020. And while those rates have slowly returned to “normal,” residual effects of the pandemic linger, such as the rise of mental health concerns. Loved ones have died, we’ve been isolated and alone, routines have been shattered, and countless little ways of coping with life’s everyday stresses disrupted. We’ve been through so much during the past two years, leading to increased anxiety and depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicidal ideation.

Then, in August 2021, the federal eviction moratorium expired. Those already vulnerable to the factors above were hit again as evictions spiked in Georgia. Many already suffering found themselves without shelter. Eviction rates within the five-county metro Atlanta area averaged around 7,500 per month before the pandemic. After the moratorium expiration, those numbers jumped to 10,000 a month.

The Experience of Homelessness

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a person experiencing homelessness is defined as “an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”[1] This definition casts a wide net to include those who sleep in their cars, stay in abandoned buildings, rely on temporary housing shelters, or face eviction from their current residence. Any combination of the factors above could jeopardize secure housing for veterans, the elderly, families, and children. Everyone’s experience with homelessness is unique.

But everyone’s experience is not equal. When risk factors overlap, we see specific populations more likely to stand in the deadly intersection of homelessness.

Historically, people of color are more likely to experience unemployment, less access to healthcare, lower incomes, and higher incarceration rates—each a contributing factor to homelessness. Some reports show that groups such as Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and Black (or African Americans) experience 2.5 to 6 times the rate of homelessness as the nation’s overall rate of homelessness.

What This Pandemic Intersection Reveals

We can say COVID-19 has been, and continues to be, apocalyptic. Apocalyptic, not in the “end of the world prediction” or “doomsday” sense (though it was for many). Scripture renders the term as an “unveiling” or “revealing the true state of affairs.”

These past two years laid bare the prejudice inherent within our systems. They revealed the lack of guard rails for those placed dangerously close to deadly intersections not of their making. Even the COVID-19 virus discriminates when it comes into contact with the society we’ve built.

In January 2020, Georgia had an estimated 10,234 experiencing homelessness on any given day. We await to see what the next count reveals as data collection efforts resume after a pandemic hiatus.

One such effort is The Point-in-Time Count, Georgia’s federally mandated census of people experiencing homelessness (sheltered or unsheltered). In January earlier this year, the count took place in Atlanta—Georgia’s highest concentration of those facing homelessness (data releasing soon). We hope for a fuller picture of this pandemic’s impact on homelessness. But more importantly, we desperately need to address the complex and intertwined root system of housing inequity. Maybe then we’ll see the day when fewer are forced to face the deadly intersections of their lives.

[1] The Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act of 2009.

The Rev. Trey Phillips (he/him/his) is the Director of Youth Ministries and a transitional deacon at St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church (Marietta). There his work focuses upon the Christian formation of the youth and wider parish. Trey's passion is to reinvigorate the local parish as a center for deep theological learning by employing the rich intersection of human learning sciences and religious education. Trey will be ordained to the priesthood in June 2022. Trey grew up in Alabama and lived in Indiana and South Carolina before he and his spouse, Annie, moved to Atlanta in 2017. Annie is currently a pre-K teacher at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, GA. They enjoy going to the movies, traveling, and practicing hospitality—usually through board games and cookies! Learn more about the ECF Board of Directors.

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