“Housing is health care”: How COVID-19 is hurting homeless New Yorkers

When COVID-19 hit New York City, people were told to stay at home and practice social distancing, but homeless New Yorkers had few safe options. The COVID-19 mortality rate for people staying in homeless shelters is 67% higher than for New Yorkers citywide, according to Coalition for the Homeless, a direct action and advocacy organization. Many people living on the streets were afraid to go to a shelter, and there were suddenly more people who were homeless or housing insecure due to the economic impact of the pandemic.

“There was a big surge in need on the streets,” says Dave Giffen, executive director of Coalition for the Homeless. “We just had to ramp up those operations very quickly. We really would not have been able to do so without the help of Doctors Without Borders because there were so many needs that we weren't prepared on our own to meet, like the need for showers and toilets and PPE [personal protective equipment].”

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontiéres (MSF) helped provide showers, portable toilets, handwashing stations, hygiene kits, clothing, and other essentials for people in Midtown Manhattan and Harlem. Giffen says that COVID-19 has exposed deep systemic problems in the way the city responds to homelessness. “We don't want to go back to normal. Normal was terrible,” he says. “Our only hope now is that seeing how this has played out adds more fuel to the fire to solve these problems on a systemic level.”