May 30, 2020

Homeless in the Pandemic 

As a social worker for homeless people in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, I'm often asked what it's like for my clients. There are three answers to that question: 

First, for people who are eligible for homelessness services, a truly wide and fairly high-quality network of help and housing exists. These are the adequately funded social structures that we so painfully miss in the US. 

Also, in general, shelters here are light years better than the overcrowded and underfunded facilities we generally know back home. Check out what's offered by the city of Vienna, for example: During the pandemic, the city and service providers have instituted comprehensive measures to ensure that everybody in the shelters stays safe. Where I work, not one of the three dozen men who live in the facility has become noticeably ill, nor has any of the staff. Nothing's perfect – for example only now is facility-wide virus screening beginning – so I do often worry. But if I were working the cash register at a grocery store, I'd be much more worried.  

Second, if you're homeless but not eligible for temporary housing or regular emergency shelters because you're not Austrian or not a "settled" foreigner ... well, you're in trouble. Then you must rely on underfunded and overcrowded emergency shelters that don't look so very different to those in the US, or on the spacious parks. For women, this often means trading sex for a space to sleep. In the winter, however, the city does provide almost a thousand extra emergency beds, known as the "Winterpaket." Every April these emergency shelters close, but this year, they remain open and people there can stay all day, not just at night. I had to visit one such shelter with a client a few weeks ago and I must say, I was shocked. The resources for Corona protection were lacking, and compliance with social distancing was really not in evidence, neither by the overworked staff nor by the clients. I called it a ticking time bomb and indeed, just a few days ago we read about it in the news: homeless shelter with some 200 people under quarantine. I hate being right.

Third, even with such relatively good social policy, too many people are sleeping rough, are hungry and are ill without health insurance. If you want to help, try these organizations:

— Antje Lewis, DAA member and Founding Mother