While many of us take refuge in our homes, sheltering with family or friends against an unprecedented global health crisis, we must think of those for whom home is a prison rather than a sanctuary. For the homeless population living in shelters as well as survivors of ongoing domestic abuse, social distancing has a devastating impact.
At this moment, women living with abuse are walled in, unable to leave their households or maintain vital social connections outside the home. The threat to women and children living in households with violence is heightened under shelter-in-place orders — forcing domestic violence support centers to prepare for an influx in distress.
Meanwhile, the sheltered homeless population is confined to a space where privacy and isolation rarely exist. Parents with children living in shelters are at some of the greatest risk of infection, surviving in a shared space while struggling with chronic stress that often translates to immune deficiency. According to the CDC, homeless populations across the U.S. are at double risk of becoming infected.
At Margaret’s House, a shelter for women and children in Boston where I volunteered for over a year, homeless women live in cramped quarters, sharing every common space including the kitchen. During the winter of 2018, the common cold and flu spread like wildfire through the shelter. Workers were unable to keep up with the rate of the spread, trying in vain to sanitize the surfaces where women prepared food and floors where babies crawled. Given the lack of healthcare among shelter residents at Margaret’s House and the number of women who are undocumented and ineligible for unemployment benefits, the spread of the coronavirus does not just spell sickness. For many women, it will destroy the possibility of escape from poverty.
The consequences of wealth inequality, long ignored, and particularly the social proximity of the poor to one another, present a health risk to all. Now more than ever, the rich can wall themselves off in the privacy of self-isolation while the economically marginalized are left to be victims of an escalating pandemic. This crisis is exposing our country’s flimsy defense against destitution and disease. Lives will come at the great cost of this ignorance.
Walking the aisles of my local grocery store, I am struck, like many, by the lack of cleaning supplies, toilet paper, and crucial food items on the shelves. These experiences unearth emotions of fear and anxiety. But the sudden onset of lack and need many of us are experiencing for the first time is only a fraction of the despair and want that Colorado’s poorest communities endure daily.
Today, the consequences of chronic injustice resonate with greater gravity. The stories of trauma and vulnerability I see in the news have ruptured the quiet safety of my privileged world — forcing into light the ignorance I cling to each day as I shop for food, spend time with my family, or take my health and stable housing for granted. The societal and economic structures of inequality we have come to accept in our country are being laid bare.
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I am disappointed that actions to protect the poor are arriving too late. In Denver, Governor Polis announced that the city is considering moving the homeless to empty motels or even college dorms. If we can find housing for the homeless during a pandemic, why can’t we prioritize their safety during times of comparative stability?
I feel despair as I watch news reports of widespread sickness and death, and of health care workers being pushed to their limits, in a country that likes to imagine itself immune to destruction. Across the nation, we are realizing the critical need for support systems like universal health care, affordable housing, and a livable minimum wage, issues that all too often become tied up in partisan posturing. During this period of emergency, these issues no longer feel up for debate.
But amid this suffering, there exists a precious opportunity. The only way I can move forward is to believe that change will rise from these desperate circumstances. Collectively, Americans must learn from this emergency, and stand in solidarity with the voiceless. The 2020 election is an opportunity to demand increased social support programs for the poor. This pandemic will end — and each of us will walk away scarred by the memories of suffering and fear. But we must also carry forward a renewed hunger for social justice. Our collective trauma can transform into unprecedented political power.
Donate to your local domestic violence support center or homeless organization, read the news about the actions being taken to protect the poor, and come November 2020, carry your vote as a weapon. Social isolation may force us inward, erecting protective walls against an uncertain world, but in seeking that protection we must remember not to wall out the marginalized, abused, and poor, whose lives depend on visibility.
Madeleine Hughes is a senior at Boston College, finishing the school year online in her Denver home.
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