Statistics Scarce on COVID and Local Homeless Population

COVID is unique in that the virus seems to affect people differently based on wide-ranging demographic characteristics including race, socioeconomic status, and previous health conditions. Because COVID has caused major job losses and thus an economic downturn in the U.S., homelessness has increased exponentially both nationally and locally.  

“Generally speaking, people living on the street or camping, experiencing homelessness… experience higher rates of chronic untreated disease,” Shawn Collins, executive director of the Unity Shelter, said. 

The fact that Benton County has a seemingly exploding homeless population compounded by a public health crisis prompts the question; what are the rates of COVID transmission amongst the rapidly growing homeless community?  

As individuals experiencing homelessness do not have immediate, regular access to hygiene products or health care services, it is unfortunately too easy to assume that the virus is spreading quickly through these communities. However, that may not be the reality.  

“What we’ve seen nationally is a curious thingwe really expected it to be devastating, but it has not proven to be. We do not know exactly why,” Collins said.  

While some surveys across the country have found that communities using homeless shelters have concerning rates of COVID-positive test results, major questions remain about the population living in tents, cars, and RVs.  

To comply with CDC recommendations of social distancing, many homeless shelters have had to reduce the capacity of people they can shelter indoors. 

“[We are] providing nearly all of our typical services, although in many cases we are using alternative methods or have reduced capacity,” confirmed Community Outreach, Inc.’s Executive Director Ben Danley 

Because organizations are able to shelter less individuals, many in the homeless community are residing outdoors. While there are countless negative side effects of being homeless, including tolls on mental and physical health, increased stress, and poor quality of sleep, it is possible that living outdoors may slow the spread of COVID.  

“One of the side effects of homelessness is social isolation,” Collins pointed out.  

As social isolation is one of the main tactics for preventing transmission of the virus, living in tents or vehicles may provide some protection.  

However, while questions are mounting as the pandemic continues through the winter, very little statistics are being gathered from the homeless community. The increased abundance of campers and people living out of vehicles has made it difficult to collect accurate or thorough data on health statuses.  

Collins explained that because of social distancing restrictions and health guidelines organizations comply with, the usual surveys conducted of the homeless population are not occurring.  

When asked about any information Benton County has on the subject, the Deputy Director of the county’s Behavioral Health Department, Dannielle Brown, said, “We are unable to provide this information. Infection details are not separated by housing status and we cannot provide any data that would indicate rates of infection for this particular population.”  

For the time being, there are many unanswered questions when considering COVID and its rate of infection amongst homeless individuals and families.  

By: Lauren Zatkos