As we face the COVID-19 public health crisis, expanding affordable housing and ending homelessness is more critical than ever. The pandemic has given many Americans a painful new perspective on just how important a stable home is to both individual and collective wellbeing. This provides an opportunity for housing and homeless advocates to solidify an understanding of housing as healthcare, forge new alliances, and take steps toward long-term solutions.
Let’s be proactive. This is a time for solutions, ideas, and action. It’s easy to feed into narratives driven by fear or get overwhelmed by the difficulty of this moment, but constructive, forward-looking messages keep audiences from tuning out and make change seem possible. Let’s work together, lifting up our shared values, and make sure that every policy and funding decision brings us closer to an Illinois where everyone has a good place to call home.
As we call for the additional resources and policy changes, the way we frame our case will matter tremendously. What we say today will set the tone for moving forward in the wake of this crisis. We have the opportunity to find shared values, align messaging, and make a greater impact together.
Below are some messages that Housing Action Illinois members, partners, and allies may find useful to quote, adopt, or adapt. They are informed by guidance and examples from Frameworks Institute, National Low Income Housing Coalition, Opportunity Starts at Home, and The Opportunity Agenda.
Housing is healthcare
Perhaps the clearest and strongest message when it comes to affordable housing and homelessness right now is that a good home is critical for good health.
While experts advise everyone to stay at home to protect our collective health and safety, we must make sure everyone has a home of their own.
All of us inevitably encounter health challenges, even when we aren’t in the midst of a global pandemic. Communities, states, and the country need systems and policies that help make these challenges manageable for everyone.
Not a great equalizer
Although the coronavirus affects us all, it does not affect us all equally. Historically disinvested communities are suffering disproportionately from this pandemic. In Illinois, as of April 5, 41% of fatalities from COVID-19 were of Black residents, compared to 15% of our state population. Latinos make up 60% of the population in the 10 ZIP codes in Illinois with the fastest growing number of new COVID-19 cases, according to recent analysis.
“COVID is just unmasking the deep disinvestment in our communities, historical injustices, and the impact of residential segregation,” Dr. Camara Jones, a family physician, epidemiologist, and fellow at Harvard tells ProPublica.
As we rebuild, let’s redesign our economy and systems so that they work for all of us. Rather than going back to an unequal “normal,” let’s lay the foundation for a community in which everyone has access to good, affordable homes.
Centering voices with lived experience
We must be inclusive as we respond to and discuss this crisis; both messages and messengers should center the stories and perspectives of people experiencing homelessness and housing instability. While lifting up these stories and perspectives, it is essential to be respectful, transparent, and thoughtful.
A recent example of how leadership, testimony, and advocacy of people with lived experience can build a powerful, successful campaign is the Just Housing Initiative. Dozens of Just Housing Leaders changed hearts and minds by sharing personal challenges in finding housing with an arrest or conviction record. For a recently published collection of stories by Illinoisans who have experienced homelessness, many of which point toward the intersection of housing and health, see A Place to Call Home.
“It is critical that we develop a comprehensive, preventative strategy for those that are living on the streets and those most vulnerable in our shelter system,” says Leeanna Majors, a grassroots leader with Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “If we do not, it will be increasingly difficult to flatten the curve. We must also keep in mind that the problem of homelessness existed before this crisis and will continue once it is over, and we need to advance short-term solutions to the crisis at hand without forgetting the need for long-term permanent housing.”
“I am terrified of the coronavirus,” 11-year-old Mariah tells the Chicago Sun-Times in an article on students experiencing homelessness. Mariah and her 56-year-old mother, Margaret, have been “doubled up” for as long as they can remember. “I need to keep her healthy and safe because I cannot lose her,” Margaret says. “That’s my baby.”
“I’ve paid rent and held a steady job for 5 years at my apartment and with this no working and no money coming in I could use the help [of a rent freeze or rent relief],” says Ashley. “I’m a flight attendant in constant fear of a furloughed. Along with countless flight attendants in Chicago, paying rent will only become increasing difficult in the coming months,” shares Ryan. See more at Tenant Testimonials.
“At night I cry,” Victoria told Northwest Side Housing Center (NWSHC) when staff asked her how she was getting by. “I am very scared because I have heart problems and I know if I get sick and don’t recover my daughters will be left with no one. The cash assistance [from NWSHC] has helped me to pay my rent, to buy food, and for hygiene items like toilet paper, diapers, and soap, but we could use more money for food and cleaning supplies or rental assistance.”
We’re in this together
This is an opportunity to focus on what brings us together and how we can build communities that are better for all of us. We need to talk not only about what happens to one group (landlords or tenants, for example) but instead try to address the whole systems at play—while also acknowledging that these systems have structural inequalities (see above section, “Not a great equalizer”).
Be careful and intentional in framing the needs of marginalized and high-risk groups. Avoid “us” and “them” messages and instead write from a collective voice, highlighting how communities are affected as a whole. From Frameworks Institute: A sole focus on how the virus affects “vulnerable” groups creates distance and difference. People don’t see themselves in the issue. They disengage and ignore guidance, assuming it doesn’t apply to them. They blame “those people” for the situation. They become less likely to support the kind of all-in, equity-focused approaches we need. We can overcome this by placing people and places with particular risks in a broader frame before homing in on specific needs.
We all benefit when we all do better. To address this public health crisis, we need policies and practices that respond to inequitable health, social, and economic situations. We must invest in everyone’s well-being and take care of all Illinoisans.
We must avoid creating a financial cliff that renters, homeowners, and landlords will all fall off of when eviction and foreclosure moratoria are lifted and back payment is owed. Emergency rental assistance will help keep renters from losing their homes during a pandemic—when our collective health depends on each of us staying home—and ensures the continued viability of our country’s essential affordable housing infrastructure. (See more from NLIHC.)
We must to address urgent housing needs so that we can all stay home when we need to. How do you shelter in place when you have no shelter? How do you stay home when you’re homeless? How do you self-isolate or practice social distancing when you live in close quarters with others? And, how can we all stay safe when some do not have a safe place to live?
Housing affects everything else in our lives
Where you live affects everything in your life, including your and your family’s ability to self-isolate, shelter in place, rely on the internet, and access health care.
Home is the foundation upon which we build our lives. It affects our health, our access to education, and our ability to find employment, raise a family, save money, and create a better future. As the COVID-19 pandemic affects people’s ability to make their rent or mortgage payments, it will also affect our ability to work, care for our children, and recover.
Solutions for today and tomorrow
As we work to address the urgent needs of people facing housing instability, we must focus on longer term solutions.
It wasn’t okay that we had people sleeping on the sidewalk and families paying more than 50% of their income on rent before this pandemic. It isn’t okay now, and it won’t be okay after. (Inspired by Julie Dworkin of Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.)
“When the COVID-19 curve has flattened, let’s vow to never again make people sleep and live in shelters and congregate settings, where they are sitting ducks for infectious disease. Everyone must have a real home,” Dr. Richard Cho of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness tweeted on March 25.