By Veronica Perry
On Tuesday, April 21, our newest Price Talk featured a conversation on how COVID-19 is affecting individuals experiencing homelessness in California, led by Gary Painter, Chair of the Department of Public Policy, Director of the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation and Director of the Homelessness Policy Research Institute. During his 30-minute talk, Painter explained the realities of homelessness and what is being done to combat pressing issues facing the vulnerable population, especially in Los Angeles.
Over the last ten years, Painter noted, homelessness in California has increased more than 22% and the majority of homeless individuals in California and Los Angeles county are unsheltered. Painter noted that this sub-population represents over half of the homeless population in the nation, and are likely to experience more critical health challenges, violence and trauma.
Painter explained that 30% of households in Los Angeles County allot more than half of their monthly income to rent. “This combination of high rents and low relative incomes is a primary driver toward homelessness,” he said.
As the current pandemic began to unfold, incarcerated and homeless individuals were seen to be particularly at-risk due to their lack of access to healthy food, proper rest, hygiene and ability to practice social distancing. In addition, Painter stated that older homeless individuals had an additional risk factor.
Still, age isn’t the only consideration of risk, nor are the complex realities of living without shelter. Race plays an important role, as we have seen in reporting that shows the breakdown of COVID-19 deaths by race and ethnicity. In this same vein, Painter shared that we must acknowledge and consider that “in particular, both black people and native populations are overrepresented in California homelessness. That has important implications for how we assess risk and how we craft policies,” Painter said.
Painter highlighted several actions from both the city and state to enact temporary halts to evictions and foreclosures, as well as rent control measures. However, for individuals experiencing homelessness, current sheltering measures remain insufficient. “In some cases, the current shelter system is over-subscribed in the sense that you aren’t able to maintain physical distance unless you actually change the physical infrastructure of those shelters,” Painter explained.
However, he also stated that the City of Los Angeles plans to convert 42 recreation centers into shelters. Additionally, winter shelter programs have been expanded, and 300 new mobile hygiene stations and 18 shower facilities have been made available. There has been important progress – but more is needed.
Painter talked about Project Room Key, a program in California seeking to offer 15,000 hotel rooms that are currently vacant due to COVID-19, to people experiencing homelessness. “It is explicitly for people who are experiencing homelessness as a way to reduce spread and to protect those who may have been exposed,” he said.
Painter emphasized that these actions are helpful, but it is critical to think about what actions will be taken once the pandemic subsides. “Oftentimes policymakers are focused on [what’s happening right now] because the crisis is so real and immediate. But a group of us ought to be thinking about what to do in six months, 12 months and years from now,” he said.
Audience members asked targeted questions pertaining to allocation of financial resources, the difference between pre-COVID-19 priorities for the homeless and what’s being advocated for now, how non-profit organizations can support the homeless, and what to expect from COVID-19 infections rates and testing among the homeless. Painter’s answers to these compelling questions and the full conversation can be watched here.
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Chair of the Department of Public Policy and Director of the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation
Director, USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation, Director, Homelessness Policy Research Institute