Homeless With COVID-19
What will happen to the homeless during this pandemic?
Posted April 11, 2020
When this virus appeared in the news a few months ago, I was fairly certain it would die out and come to nothing. But today, I find myself temporarily moved out of my apartment, living with family, and isolated from the rest of the world. Due to my schizophrenia and antipsychotic medication, I am nervous that there could be complications from COVID-19 if I caught it, so I’m doing everything I can to stay safe and well. I’m not very afraid for myself, but I am afraid for the homeless.
As the virus spreads across the nation and the world, I keep thinking back to my years mentally ill and homeless and wonder—what would I have done if the pandemic had begun while I was living outside?
For three years, I hid in buildings, and in 2006-2007, I spent 13 months outside in a churchyard. Living every day outdoors, I felt very healthy. It was a little like a camping trip, and the fresh air was pleasant.
Because I was paranoid of entering a homeless shelter, I chose to sleep outside. I accepted almost no aid from family, friends, food banks or other organizations. With no insight into my schizophrenia, I believed that, as a prophet on a mission, part of my journey involved living outside, alone.
Had the virus emerged when I was living outside, there would have been many changes in the neighborhood, especially in regard to looking for food. I would have found nothing to eat, as everyone was indoors, and no longer discarding food outside.
When I initially became homeless, I was living off discarded food that did not meet my basic needs. I lost at least 10 pounds. Friends and acquaintances commented that I looked sick, and unknowingly, I was.
If COVID-19 had emerged when I was homeless, would I have finally accepted free food from family, a food bank or another organization? Or would I still have refused aid and become thinner and thinner?
As a homeless person, it is hard to imagine how I would have responded if approached by a government official offering me a free, safe place to stay in the event of a pandemic. I had always refused help.
During my years homeless, at least two families offered me free housing food, friendship, and stability. But, my schizophrenia made me restless, and I couldn’t stand to live an ordinary life indoors. While sleeping outside, I lived in an imaginary world where even someday becoming a billionaire seemed possible.
If I had been offered housing in the event of a pandemic, and If I did accept it, how soon would I have opted out and tried to return to the churchyard? Even with the risk of infection and the lack of food, I may have still chosen to live outside.
If I had refused aid and continued living outside, scavenging for food in garbage, I would have been a danger to both myself (catching the infection) and society (spreading the virus). If I became sick, how would I have cared for myself outside? Would police have eventually picked me up from the churchyard and taken me to the emergency room?
On the day I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, my life radically changed in many ways. I was no longer allowed to live on the streets. If I did choose to resume sleeping outside, my parents were ready to seek conservatorship and mandate that I live somewhere safe with a roof over my head. I wish every homeless person living outside with severe mental illness had a concerned guardian.
I wish I had been diagnosed with schizophrenia at least a year earlier, because in my first month living outside, voices in my mind and other hallucinations began. My homeless life was a catalyst that drew me increasingly deeper into severe mental illness.
Today, I read the news about how the homeless are being offered housing in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other parts of the country. There are handwashing stations for the homeless, precautions taken and provisions offered. I realize we are on the right track. Now the question is: what is to be done if these people have no insight and refuse to accept help, like I did?
I hope someday those with severe mental illness are cared for, and no one is living on the streets. Seeing the homeless offered housing in the face of this pandemic encourages me. However, it shouldn’t take a pandemic for us to determine that the needs of this vulnerable population must be addressed.