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Legislative Watch: Homelessness in the COVID Era

It's a health risk at any time and one that disproportionately affects Black individuals and families. During a pandemic, it's an unacceptable burden. Legislators are looking at ways to better cope with the problem.

A homeless camp in Cupertino, Calif., the heart of Silicon Valley. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group/TNS)
The slogan “Housing is Healthcare” was coined more than two decades ago, near the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Its truth and significance are more apparent than ever during the pandemic. Both public health and the personal well-being of more than half a million homeless men and women in America depend on relief for the unsheltered.

Forty percent of homeless individuals and more than half of homeless families are Black, according to a recent assessment by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This is an extreme manifestation of the inequities behind the disproportionate number of Black deaths from COVID-19.

The next federal stimulus package could include $11.5 billion for grants to address the impact of the coronavirus on Americans who are homeless, or at risk of becoming so. In recent weeks, legislators in several states have been chipping away at pieces of the problem, in big ways and small. Some examples:

H966, a Vermont bill, provides $550,000 to Vermont Legal Aid for legal and counseling services to persons who are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless, as well as those experiencing economic harm because of the pandemic. It also allocates $9 million for grants to nonprofit housing and service organizations for housing and facilities. It provides $25 million for rental assistance and eviction protection and asks the state’s housing authority to develop additional support services and to “better promote upstream homelessness prevention.”

SB1008 in Michigan would amend the public health code to require facilities that provide emergency care to develop a policy to guide decision-making when demand for their services exceeds their ability to provide them. Among other stipulations, it prohibits decisions from being made on the basis of stereotypes or social stigma, including homelessness.

California SCR-92 recognizes racism as a public health threat and states that racist assumptions and practices have created unhealthy social and physical conditions for people of color. It highlights federal actions that have encouraged homeless shelters to discriminate against transgender people, preventing Black transwomen from accessing critical health services. It affirms the Legislature’s antiracist “Health-in-All” focus, and asks that it be reflected in laws and regulations. 

S8643A, a New York bill, requires the commissioners of the state’s Department of Health, Department of Homeless Services and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to prepare and publish reports on their websites regarding the COVID-19 status of sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals. These reports are to include counts of those infected, hospitalized and deceased as well as information regarding shelter status and type of shelter.

New Jersey A2516 addresses the shortage of affordable housing in the state and the fact that market rates lead to low-income families occupying housing that they cannot truly afford, accepting this burden out of fear of becoming homeless. Late or missed payments can damage their credit scores and prevent them from competing for access to deeply subsidized housing units. It provides an alternative to credit or risk scores to evaluate eligibility for such housing.

HB685, in Ohio, makes amendments to the state’s public welfare code in regards to child care. It directs family services departments to make child care services available to homeless children, and calls for procedures to be developed that give children from low-income families priority in regards to eligibility for such services.

Massachusetts S2759 lays out a program of investments in information technology and cybersecurity for state programs, services, institutions and agencies. Reflecting the reliance on distance learning in the pandemic era, it includes $40 million for a matching grant program to assist public school districts in improving their ability to conduct instruction and assessment using information technology. This would include grants to ensure that homeless students have fair and equitable access to technology.

Powered by Quorum. Map will update as new bills are introduced.

Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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