Q&A: Homeless During a Coronavirus Christmas

 An encampment along Rumrill Road in San Pablo on Dec. 24. (Joel Umanzor Jr. / The CC Pulse)

Interview, Joel Umanzor Jr.

Throughout the year, COVID-19 has ravaged every facet of society in the United States, especially those communities most impacted by a lack of resources and services. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness estimates that as of January 2019, more than 151,000 people were experiencing a lack of housing in California on any given day.

Daniel Barth of Safe Organized Spaces Richmond says the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from delayed evictions makes this holiday season especially critical for solutions to housing limitations.

“Unfortunately, the numbers of people who will be homeless, when evictions may begin in February, will increase. Already, I’ve seen an increase of 300% at some local encampments,” Barth said. “COVID made clear that we need to address the basics, such as access to water, sanitation and hygiene.”

Barth says communities are now more economically vulnerable and are more sensitized to potentially becoming homeless, which could help usher in improvements for people experiencing homelessness.

“This year, there is an opportunity to improve the interim sheltering options for our unsheltered neighbors, and cities are more receptive to step into the fray to give help in ways not possible before,” he said.

One person who lives in various encampments around the creeks in the West County area has shared his story with The CC Pulse. James, who only gave his first name, talked about how the coronavirus has affected getting resources and medical help and how this year feels different to him.

The CC Pulse: Homelessness already presents many challenges, but how has the coronavirus changed things?

James: I’ll tell you what, I’ve been struggling for a handful of years. When I fell out with my family in the [Central] Valley, I moved to the Bay because there was more work here. I wasn’t able to find anything stable. This has been 100% worse this year. I can’t find anything, so I’m out here, trying to do what I can.

RP: Has COVID-19 affected how people treat you or how much help you can get?

J: This area is a lot more giving than other places I’ve been, but folks look at you funny. I feel like people think that you have the virus because you look like you haven’t been on your feet. Usually, the holidays are a time when folks are generous when they look at people like me, but this year’s felt different.

RP: How are things at shelters? Have you been able to take advantage of those services?

J: For me, it’s like playing with your own life when you go to a shelter… it’s taking a risk. You don’t know who has been there before, you don’t know if they cleaned everything. And I’m already a paranoid person, so I’ve avoided it. I’ve gotten help the times I’ve stayed in the West Oakland camps, which was nice, but that’s far from this area.

RP: Is there anything you plan to do differently this holiday, with all the closures happening?

J: Not much different than any other day, honestly. I’ll probably be with some other folks who have been living in the same area under an underpass tunnel. I’m just hoping to be able to find a free meal somewhere that’s serving something for the holidays… but I’m not sure since there are all the restrictions here.


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