Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced a bill on Wednesday that would dramatically expand funding to protect people experiencing homelessness as the coronavirus pandemic makes its way across the country.
The legislation, called the Public Health Emergency Shelter Act, was introduced in the House last month by Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). It would provide $15.5 billion for the Emergency Solutions Grant program under the Department of Housing and Urban Development, meant to “support direct engagement with individuals experiencing homelessness, shelter operation and services, rapid rehousing, and prevention services.”
That would include rehousing people experiencing homelessness into local hotels and motels and expanding shelter services to include those living on the street with no shelter. The bill would also increase funding for infectious disease training and hazard pay for workers on the frontlines providing health care and other volunteer services to homeless communities.
People experiencing homelessness are incredibly vulnerable to a pandemic. Those living outside may lack access to things like soap and water to keep themselves safe, and indoor shelters are struggling to meet the need given social-distancing guidelines that suggest individuals remain at least 6 feet apart. The $2 trillion coronavirus bill that President Donald Trump signed into law last week included $4 billion to support people experiencing homelessness, but the legislation from Warren, Pressley and Tlaib goes even further.
“There is an urgent need to expand the availability of emergency shelter, ensure access to soap, running water, and other safety needs, and support frontline workers providing critical support to individuals experiencing homelessness,” Warren said in a statement on Wednesday.
Perhaps the most progressive part of this bill is the “prohibition on prerequisites,” which means that no person experiencing homelessness can be denied shelter, housing or other services based on any “prerequisite activities” ― specifically drug tests.
Close to 35% of the nation’s homeless population have chronic substance abuse issues, and substance abuse is often a result of experiencing homelessness. Despite these statistics, people who are homeless and struggle with drug addiction are often left out of traditional services. Homeless shelters run by groups like the Salvation Army frequently require people to pass drug tests before they admit them, and if a resident fails a drug test once they’ve already moved in, they are kicked out.
“That’s not a recipe for helping people maintain sobriety,” Dr. Barbara DiPietro, senior director of policy at the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, said on Tuesday. DiPietro was “very excited” about Warren’s bill.
Service providers often trap members of the homeless community in a Catch-22 in which they have to “earn their way into housing or earn their way into treatment,” DiPietro said. But people often can’t meet the criteria of sobriety without the stability of shelter and services.
“At the very core, we need people to have as much stability as they can while they’re addressing their health care needs … it’s very hard to maintain abstinence from substances if you’re out in the freezing cold at night,” DiPietro said.
Grassroots advocates for homeless populations have been fighting for decades for more humane policies on homelessness and drug addiction.
“A housing and services first approach recognizes that basic human rights are not a reward for sobriety but are in fact the very foundation from which people can begin to improve their quality of life,” Maggie Mayhem, a harm reduction organizer in the San Francisco Bay Area, told HuffPost.
“In the case of the coronavirus, housing is a literal and material basis for protecting both the individual and the community … , when drug testing is a condition for care [it puts] someone at mortal risk for the contents of their urine rather than their behavior, [it] is inhumane in and of itself,” she said.
Prerequisites like this “function to keep low-income and people of color from necessary services,” she said, and it’s a testament to grassroots harm-reduction organizing that these protections have made their way into Warren’s bill.
The bill is a much-needed supplement to the coronavirus relief already signed into law, said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Yentel said she’ll be working closely with Warren’s team to ensure that the needs of housing insecure people are met.
“It has never been more clear that housing is health care,” Yentel said. “People experiencing homelessness are at high risk of both severe illnesses from coronavirus and of potentially spreading it to others given their inability to isolate or self-quarantine after being exposed to the illness.”
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