As of this week, at least four homeless people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Seattle, Washington, the city where the first coronavirus infection in the United States was confirmed in January. The confirmation of infections among the homeless population prompted five of Seattle's largest homeless shelters, including the Union Gospel Mission, to go into a 14-day lockdown.
Homeless shelters across the state have seen a drop in volunteers and staff due to the pandemic, while some have agreed to live on-site for the remainder of the lockdown to take care of the roughly 300 people who are in the shelters.
The real scope of the situation is undoubtedly more severe, since testing for the virus in Washington state and throughout the United States has been criminally inadequate to meet the needs of the population and stop the virus from spreading.
As of this writing, the Washington State Department of Health has confirmed 6,585 cases and 262 deaths. Residents with coronavirus symptoms are still being denied testing unless they have known contact with a confirmed case, fall within the highest-risk groups, or require hospitalization due to severe symptoms.
The homeless are particularly vulnerable to contracting the virus and suffering severe complications, including death. The horrendous conditions that the homeless population faces—extreme poverty, lack of resources, overcrowding in shelters, lack of hygiene, and compromised immune systems due to existing health issues and high rates of addiction—provide the perfect conditions for the spread of the coronavirus and other diseases.
Seattle has a homeless population of over 22,000 on any given day, the third largest of any city in the US, only behind Los Angeles and New York. The growth in Seattle’s homeless population is a result of an affordable housing crisis, set into motion with the housing boom of the last decade and urban redevelopment led by the expansion of Amazon’s headquarters and a number of major technology corporations.
Real estate developers have erected a vast amount of apartment complexes throughout the city that are unaffordable for most working people and have pushed housing costs up across the city. Following the national pattern, average rent in Seattle has soared in the last decade, from $1,034 per month in 2010 to $1,725 in 2019, even as wage growth for workers remains stagnant. About one in every 5 homeless people is employed but unable to afford an apartment in the city.
The number of homeless individuals in the city stands in stark contrast to the number of empty apartment units. Although exact numbers are difficult to find, roughly 1 in every 10 apartment units is vacant, according to the Associated Press.
The criminal negligence of government officials, Democrats and Republicans alike, has created a dire situation for the homeless and the population as a whole. Nearly a month since the first case of COVID-19 was reported among Seattle’s homeless population, officials are now scrambling to save face and provide shelter by using motels and “tiny village” homes, which are also breeding grounds for the pathogen because of their close proximity.
In 2015, a “homeless emergency” was declared by then mayor Ed Murray, allocating $5 million, or less than 1 percent of the city’s budget, to address the homeless crisis. This did nothing to address the problem with Washington marking one of the largest increases in the number of people who are homeless in the US in 2018, rising by more than 1,000 people.
The city has also continued to do unannounced sweeps of homeless encampments despite the emergency declaration. While the Human Services Department (HSD) has stated that homeless sweeps will be halted under the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the truth is they have continued unabated, with 15 sweeps done between March 1 and March 17 alone, risking the health and lives of the thousands of homeless people in the city.
There are over 567,000 people who are homeless on any given night throughout the United States. Public school students who experienced homelessness during the last school year numbered 1.5 million, according to the National Center for Homeless Education. According to the Washington Post, the most underserved portions of the homeless population are in Washington, D.C, California, Maine, Oregon and Washington state.
The National Committee of the Socialist Equality Party issued a program of action for the working class last month that calls for the provision of emergency housing for the homeless to help combat the pandemic.
The needs of the working class in the US and around the world are diametrically opposed to those of the ruling class, which has created the conditions that have allowed the coronavirus to flourish in the wealthiest country in the world. The pandemic has exposed not only the Democrats and Republicans, but the whole capitalist system as an existential threat to the very survival of humanity. To guarantee the right of every person to health, safety, food and housing, the vast scientific and material resources must be placed under the democratic control of the working class.