As authorities work to address this unprecedented public health crisis, everyone is frightened and unsure in their heart. Those of us who have the security of jobs, health insurance, homes, friends, and family can rest a bit more assured knowing that these blessings can help us stay buoyed. But, imagine if your life was already in a state of chaos; if you did not have a safety net to draw upon; and you if felt things spiraling out of control as those services that were keeping you afloat began to gradually disappear.
The place where you would usually go to take a shower and do a load of laundry is now closed. The dining hall where you could have a hot meal is no longer serving food. The office where your case manager or mental health worker would normally meet with you is shut down until further notice. The place where you would collect your mail, make a phone call and use the computer now has a sign that reads, “Closed Due to Corona Virus.”
This is not fictional. This is what our clients are already experiencing across the nation’s capital and the country. As I watch the disoriented faces of our client community today, my heart aches. I see fear in their eyes as they feel the only rug under their feet is being snatched away. Some are dazed and moving around aimlessly. Others are asking a million questions that we don't have answers to. I am getting e-mails where people are saying, "I just don't know what to do!"
Several weeks ago, when things still seemed normal, a gentleman we will call Jack came into Thrive DC. He was about to lose his housing. He needed to work and wanted to work. We enrolled him in our Job Readiness program. We helped strengthen his resume and do a targeted job search. To our delight, he got two offers: one part-time job in a restaurant kitchen and one as a full-time bartender. We got him shoes, pants, and a white shirt. We provided transportation for his first few weeks until he got paid. He was thrilled to have things going in his favor. He completed his training for the full-time position last week only to find out that there is no more bar service now and that the restaurant is putting all new hires on hold. In one day, both of his job prospects were gone. They vanished. A week ago Jack’s life was full of hope, positive things were happening. Jack felt like he was finally breaking through a dark place and seeing the light. Now, through no fault of his own, he is back in the dark.
This is just one of the thousands of stories that homeless people and those with unstable housing are experiencing at the moment. As one of the most disadvantaged, overlooked, belittled and vulnerable communities, their fear and anxiety are palpable. And rightfully so. We cannot just do the right thing for the most wealthy and visible. What about those who live on the margins of society? Our current response for this incredibly vulnerable community is to herd them into shelters and wait for the worst to happen. There are no effective policies or real plans for those with the least among us. One client told me," I am just waiting, waiting for this thing to knock me over and drag me through the S*&%$. I know it is coming.” My heart sank.
Despite our best intentions, I feel like we have failed a huge segment of our society. Affordable housing has continued to diminish. At the same time, over-incarceration, unemployment, and broken systems (i.e., mental health services) have fueled a miasma of social ills that have penned people to a life of poverty that may even cost them their lives. Last month, when I felt like there was nothing else I could do for a client, at the very least I could at least offer them a hug. Now, in the era of social distancing, I can't even do that. When we come up for air and this tragic time is behind us, I hope that we can do the hard work to create a proper safety net for the most vulnerable. Our national lack of planning, resource allocation and adequate response will hopefully spur new levels of action so that we can be better prepared to protect the lives of the most vulnerable during the next crisis.