Contagious Virtue: We need a pandemic of compassion to end homelessness

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

To keep updated on all of the OECD's work supporting the fight against COVID-19, visit our Digital Content Hub.

Tackling Coronavirus (COVID-19): Contributing to a Global Effort

When the current COVID-19 epidemic really hit the world and was recognised as a pandemic, most countries sooner or later launched a simple advice or order of prevention: stay at home. A simple and effective measure of precaution for those lucky ones who have a home, but not for the people experiencing homelessness. For the general public, COVID-19 is an unexpected, frightening experience bringing a lot of discomfort and uncertainty to daily life, but it is also something which you can prepare for and seek to manage by your own means. While it may only be a temporary challenge for most of us, it can be a deadly tragedy for the most vulnerable members of our society, particularly the homeless.

The research estimates that, according to a modest scenario, over 3,400 homeless people in the United States will die because of the outbreak

COVID-19 has laid bare the problems of the global housing crisis. In most countries the current pandemic has thrust homelessness services into crisis, and it has also shown how extremely vulnerable the service system is if it mainly relies on temporary accommodation in shelters and hostels. Recent research from the United States by Dennis Culhane et al. illustrates the magnitude of the effect of COVID-19 on homeless people and the service system. The research estimates that, according to a modest scenario, over 3,400 homeless people in the United States will die because of the outbreak. To provide shelter for unsheltered homeless people, and to reduce the current density in existing shelters, 400,000 new units are needed as well as independent accommodation for people who have been infected. The total cost for this year is estimated at USD 11.5 billion.

Photo by Glenn Carrie
A simple and effective measure of precaution for those lucky ones who have a home, but not for the people experiencing homelessness

So far, the scale of measures to protect the health of homeless people and workers helping them has been huge. At the other extreme, there are cities that have fined homeless people for being in the wrong place and have cleared encampments of homeless people sleeping rough, forcing them to move to overcrowded shelters. In Las Vegas, homeless people were even placed on a vacant parking lot when a shelter was closed because of the infection. But there are also encouraging examples: some cities have reserved empty hotel beds for unsheltered homeless people and shelter facilities have been reorganised to make social distancing possible. In March, the United Kingdom government even urged local councils to house homeless people – by the following weekend! So, it really could be possible to end homelessness with proper housing.

Photo by Austin Kehmeier

Read more about how cities are protecting the homeless in their policy responses to COVID-19.

Although we are now very much in the survival phase of managing the crisis, it is necessary to look beyond to a post-COVID-19 world: undoubtedly a totally different one. A global economic recession is unavoidable and, as always, poor and low-income households are hit the hardest. There are different possible scenarios. In the worst case, inequality will rise and homelessness will increase dramatically especially in the countries which have neglected the supply of affordable housing. However, a more hopeful alternative scenario is also possible.

Could this already promised financial stimulus also be the catalyst for a global action to end homelessness?

As we have seen lately, even quite drastic measures are possible in crises and unforeseen financing to aid ailing economies has been promised both from nation states and international financial institutions. Could this already promised financial stimulus also be the catalyst for a global action to end homelessness? In rebuilding an economy, actual building and construction can have a crucial role in creating economic activity.

We know what is needed to end homelessness: permanent housing and especially affordable housing. It would be possible to combine economic recovery with a global effort that would have sustainable impact on reducing inequality and ending homelessness. Decision makers now have a choice: either a vicious or virtuous circle. Researchers on compassionomics have shown that compassionate behaviours are contagious in social networks and can amplify beneficial effects. While avoiding contagious viruses, we can all do our best to create a virtuous circle through compassion.   

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Tackling COVID-19 Housing

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Go to the profile of Juha Kaakinen

Juha Kaakinen

Chief Executive Officer, Y-Foundation

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