Our Unequal Pandemic

In DC, 74% of COVID-related fatalities have been from the Black community.

Nationwide, Black Americans have experienced 16.8% of all deaths of known races, but only represent 12.4% of the country.

The disproportionate effect on Black Americans is clear.

These uneven consequences of the pandemic grow even more pronounced when it comes to our own clients, people with and without homes, returning citizens, and families with extreme food insecurity. As the pandemic drew on, we saw Thrive DC’s weekly grocery distribution triple in numbers, employment assistance increase, and many new faces show up in line for our hot meals to-go.

Throughout the pandemic, we have served hundreds of extra people each week outside our doors and over 2,000 individuals and families through distributing food to mutual aid networks and other pantry partners. These new clients are predominately people of color.

Our clients without a home have been particularly hard hit. We knew that our clients were nervous about using shelters, concerned about exposure to COVID-19 in cramped quarters. Now, during this winter season, many DC residents have no choice but to go to packed shelters, where COVID-19 rates are much higher. In DC alone, almost 1 in 10 people experiencing homelessness have tested positive for coronavirus, and at least 24 have “officially” died from contracting the virus. These are just reported numbers, from a community that is extremely hard to count and track.

Black residents make up 87% of adults experiencing homelessness in DC.

The pandemic has exposed many inequalities in our city and across our country that are hard to ignore. Black and Brown Americans have not suffered worse under COVID-19 because of inherent differences, but because of social constructs and a history that has primed our clients to fare worse. And as the pandemic has affected communities unequally, our response will be heavily weighted on issues affecting those most impacted; our response must seek to level the playing field.

Over the next few weeks, Thrive DC will be publishing a series of articles that examine the unequal ways the pandemic has affected our communities. We will take brief looks at the pandemic through the lenses of Housing, Employment, and Healthcare. At the end of each article, we will suggest some broad policy solutions that can address the injustice we’ve seen our clients experience and proactively work toward preventing these disparities from happening again.

Nathan Dumlao via unsplash

In Washington, DC, a city with one of the largest homeless populations in the nation, COVID-19 has hit our city hard.

For those experiencing homelessness, a crisis in itself, this new crisis added an even greater layer of hardship.

Unemployment rates spiked, food insecurity rates drastically increased, warming centers closed, meal programs shut down, and housing placements were suspended, prolonging homelessness for thousands, at the worst time, in the midst of a global pandemic.

And it’s impossible to ignore that this population – the hardest hit by the pandemic, the ones who are six times more likely to die of COVID-19 and who make up 86.4% of the homeless population – are Black residents of DC.

Discrimination and Housing

In a city full of housing and employment opportunities, why is homelessness so prevalent for Black residents and why has that same population been so hard hit by the pandemic?

Addressing the concentrated impact of COVID-19 on this community cannot be done without addressing the root causes, one of which is racism in housing.

Housing discrimination is deeply rooted in our country – from Black citizens being barred from affordable housing, enduring implicit biases in the housing market, and the federal government denying returning citizens access to public housing – the system has continually discouraged Black Americans from homeownership. And this continuing depressed homeownership has created a massive wealth gap between white households and Black households in DC.

For those long-time DC residents who do own homes, gentrification has pushed many of them out of the city. While the renaissance of our city has been a blessing for most, it has hurt many as well. And in the case of longtime renters, there are few protections for them from skyrocketing rents.

And rent is skyrocketing: it is estimated that in DC, a minimum wage worker would have to work 77 hours a week to afford an average one-bedroom apartment.

Historical Effects of Discrimination

DC’s history of housing has contributed significantly to Black residents being disproportionately affected by the pandemic. With a lack of affordable housing, Black families are more likely to live in cramped households with little room for social distancing. Multi-generational households and multi-dwelling living spaces, like apartments, are also more common in Black households than white households. To add onto already cramped quarters, Black Americans are also more likely to hold essential in-person jobs, thus bringing an added risk for exposure and infection.

At Thrive DC, we’ve always seen the effects that gentrification and the lack of affordable housing has had on DC residents. Thrive DC was founded in 1979 in response to the first wave of homelessness in DC and has evolved over time as the growth in homelessness and the lack of resources for those without homes increased.

When COVID-19 hit, we knew our response had to equal the need that we were seeing in the community. That’s why we greatly expanded our food programs, connecting with partners to serve over 2,000 households in Ward 1 and across the city with emergency groceries each week.

Clay Leconey via Unsplash

The Solution is Equity

The solution is what it’s always been: housing. We need more housing to meet the needs of future residents, and 12,000 new affordable homes just for the current residents.

But specifically, we need housing that puts equity at the center of our city’s response to the pandemic. What communities have been hardest hit? How do we prioritize recovery? DC’s own ReOpen DC Working Group recognized that “equal access to high quality food, housing, education, and jobs” have long evaded our urban and low-income communities.

As we rebuild from the pandemic, how will we enshrine equity in our response?

Thrive DC is working with our coalition partners to fight for housing resources for our city’s most vulnerable residents: people without homes, especially those who have been homeless the longest; people exiting incarceration, and especially for women in both of these intersecting populations, who often face greater burdens and challenges than their counterparts.

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

Housing is Healthcare

As previously covered, disparities in housing have prompted racial inequities in the pandemic, and a history of racism and discrimination in healthcare has only worsened the inequities.

But even more pointedly, it’s also the intersection between housing and healthcare that has led to Black Americans being disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

In a comparison done between Ward 8 – where residents are more than 90% Black – and Ward 3 – where only 5% of residents are Black, researchers found huge disparities. The average resident in Ward 3 will live 16 years longer than the average resident in Ward 8 due to a lack of hospitals, education, and public transportation. There is only one hospital in Ward 8, despite such an obvious need for more healthcare options.

And because segregated neighborhoods are more likely to be near highways or factories where air pollution is greater, Black Americans are also more likely to have asthma. Scarcity of grocery stores and fresh produce also result in higher numbers of obesity in Black Americans.

But unfortunately, location isn’t the only barrier Black Americans face.

A History of Racism

Racism in healthcare – more specifically, undercover, overtly racist experiments on Black Americans – has bred a strong distrust of medicine in many individuals. The Tuskegee experiment, the eugenics movement, and Henrietta Lack’s regenerating cells – to name just a few – have caused trauma, harm, and a distrust that won’t be easy to rebuild.

And even when Black Americans seek treatment for healthcare problems, they are less likely to receive the help they need.

Healthcare disparities during COVID-19

Unsurprisingly, healthcare disparities were worsened during the pandemic. There were various cases of Black patients being turned away from testing, a lack of testing sites in low-income neighborhoods; and now, vaccine distribution is proving that DC continues to prioritize high-income, majority white residents.

At Thrive, we see a lot of clients held back by a system that continually puts up barriers. Why do you need internet access to receive a life-saving vaccine? Why are vaccinations at homeless shelters only reaching a small number of people? Why are testing sites and vaccination sites only in certain neighborhoods?

We are working with our clients to break through these barriers.

When flu season brought concern about the ongoing pandemic exasperating the flu, we partnered with the Rodham Institute to give free flu shots to our clients and community. When there was a lack of testing in Ward 1, we teamed up with Core Response DC to offer coronavirus testing on site. When clients without internet access and a phone were unsure of how to sign up for the vaccine, we closely monitored the vaccine rollout, attempting to sign up our clients who qualified.

Looking Towards the Future

So we ask what we asked before and will continue to ask: how do we as a community and city enshrine equity in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Moving forward, everyone needs to be included in the conversation. DC’s Council Office of Racial Equity states that marginalized groups should be a part of budget and policy making processes to ensure that “more inclusive choices are made.”

At Thrive DC, we believe that every person has the potential to thrive when offered dignity, caring, and compassion and we will continue to act as a one-stop shop for individuals and families in crisis. At the same time, we will advocate for state and local governments to ingrain equity in our response so that residents who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 come out stronger.

As we pass the year mark of COVID-19’s first appearance in our community, Thrive DC has taken a look back to see how, and why, COVID has affected communities differently. We’ve looked at these effects through the lens of housing and healthcare – now we look at the past year through the lens of employment to see why COVID-19 has such an outsized impact on communities of color in DC.

Maria Oswalt via unsplash

There Has Never Been Equal Opportunity

Discrimination in the workforce is deeply rooted in DC’s history, going back to 1790. DC was established as a slave capital, and exploited enslaved persons to clear the land and build on it. Even after DC became free, Black Codes in the 1830s kept full equality impossible, and included an occupational license ban that limited Black residents to few, low-paying jobs.

The positions Black workers were limited to allowed for little to no opportunity for wealth building, establishing a disproportionate income gap between Black and white households that continues today.

While many explicitly racist laws have been lifted, racism still persists in the job market. From continued segregation in the workplace to restrictions on work opportunities for returning citizens – 95% of whom are Black residents in DC – discrimination in employment has set Black workers back for years. And during the pandemic, it exacerbated the major disparities between Black and white DC residents.

Discrimination in Employment During COVID-19

It’s no surprise that these larger, ongoing employment trends make Black Americans even more vulnerable during the pandemic.

As mentioned, Black workers are more likely to have low wage, essential in-person jobs due to segregation in hiring. These jobs put DC’s Black population on the frontlines of the pandemic, exposing them to the greatest risk when we knew the least about the virus.

And with a large percentage of Black residents taking public transportation to get to work, overcrowded bus rides and exposure to shared public surface put them at an even greater risk.

Unemployment was just as much of an issue. Just a few months into the crisis, Black unemployment rates nearly doubled in DC forcing many to skip meals to save up food stamps and/or worry about a looming eviction. As Thrive saw in our community, food insecurity was a major concern for many families who lost their jobs and didn’t know what was going to happen next.

Our emergency grocery program grew almost 4,000% in response to the need from families.

Lack of jobs and little opportunity for growth has been a problem for Black DC residents since the start. On top of historical inequality, we saw this past year DC’s Black community take the one-two punch of our city’s most risky jobs for contracting the virus and largest risk of food insecurity and homelessness through unemployment.

How to Fix It

As we come out of the pandemic, we must – as a community and a city – enshrine equity in our response.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute has laid out solutions for closing the gap between Black and white workers. However, these won’t happen on their own – to rectify the wrongs of our city’s past, decisions that policymakers make must be intentional, prioritizing those residents who have been disproportionately affected.

These are not one-time fixes, but part of a larger pattern towards justice in our city.

We must create equity in the workplace, ensuring that racism has no place in the hiring process and prioritizing more Black workers in all occupations and fields.

Existing wage and worker protection laws must be enforced and stronger protections adopted.

We must destigmatize returning citizens, and set up more networks and opportunities for those coming back from incarceration. Our city has an unequal history. The pandemic only clarified the extent of inequality between white residents and communities of color, making something that has been obvious to many, understood by all. Now, with a common understanding, we must do something about it. 

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