For the Most Vulnerable, Space is a Scarce Resource in the Age of COVID-19

Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, tissues. These items were the first to be frantically bought out from local supermarkets as the coronavirus started to ravage the nation, leaving empty shelves staring back at unlucky shoppers. However, their absence was temporary. As the pandemic rages on, many are finding that one commodity remains a scarce resource: space. 

In order to slow the spread of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged the public to practice “social distancing,” a term now ingrained into our everyday vernacular. This directive states that people should stay at least six feet apart from one another while outside of their homes, since keeping one’s distance from others is the most basic way to avoid exposure to the virus. However, this poses difficult challenges for many of society’s most vulnerable members, whose circumstances make social distancing guidelines hard to follow. For domestic violence survivors, the homeless population, and essential workers in particular, COVID-19 has reminded us that something as simple as space is a privilege.

Trapped with No Escape

For those who suffer from intimate partner violence, staying at home is often a less than desirable option. By forcing large swaths of the population to work from home, COVID-19 has provided an opportunity for abusers to take advantage of their partners’ captivity. 

“Abuse is about power and control,” the National Domestic Violence Hotline wrote in a press release in mid-March. “When survivors are forced to stay in the home or in close proximity to their abuser more frequently, an abuser can use any tool to exert control over their victim.” These issues have only been exacerbated by the pandemic, when abusers may purposefully share misinformation about the pandemic to frighten survivors, threaten to cancel medical insurance to prevent survivors from seeking medical care, or withhold essential items such as hand sanitizer. Isolation becomes a weapon and is wielded against those unable to escape.

In an interview with the HPR, Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, noted that pandemic-caused unemployment may have forced many abusers and survivors into closer contact with each other. Unemployment has skyrocketed across the country since the start of 2020, leaving 21 million people unemployed as of May.

In addition to an increased risk of compromised safety for survivors, being confined within such close quarters with an abuser makes them further isolated from support networks and limits their privacy. Many victims of abuse fear they will be caught and face retribution if they seek help. In March, phone calls to the National Domestic Violence Hotline were down 6% relative to March 2019, but as the stay-at-home orders began to lift in April, contact volume increased 15% compared to April of the previous year. Text messages to the hotline have also surged, indicating that texting might be a safer form of communication. 

When living at home is no longer viable, limited shelter availability poses another difficult problem. As Campbell pointed out, shelters have lost some of their capacity to ensure adequate social distancing measures. Even those that remain open can quickly become a breeding ground for the virus. It is an unforgiving situation that denies those most vulnerable a safe space. 

In response, cities have taken unprecedented measures. Houston partnered with Uber and Lyft to provide free rides to those escaping abuse. Chicago has established a partnership with Airbnb so that callers to the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline looking to flee a violent situation will be connected with a hotel reservation. Other cities have launched public safety campaigns including free hotlines, shelters and legal resources available to domestic violence victims. 

Pushed Out of Public Spaces

As stay-at-home orders were issued this spring, the closure of many local parks and outdoor areas had an outsize effect on those experiencing homelessness, many of whom may depend on these public spaces. “Self-quarantine, social isolation, and stay-at-home orders are difficult, if not impossible, to follow when you do not have a home,” read a recent report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness. In addition, homeless shelters have had to operate at reduced capacity, exacerbating problems for the homeless population, who may not have reliable access to a safe space during the pandemic. This vulnerable community is already under-resourced in normal circumstances, and the pandemic is making that worse.

It is estimated that more than half a million people experience homelessness every year, many of whom may seek refuge in a communal facility. However, these homeless shelters are not conducive to maintaining distance and can rapidly become the epicenters of outbreaks — as a result, the coronavirus has swept through homeless populations with alarming speed. In a CDC study from this spring, 25% of residents across 19 homeless shelters in Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, and Atlanta, tested positive for COVID-19. 

These high rates of infection have the potential to heighten many of the difficult conditions under which homeless people already live, including high rates of serious underlying health problems, unequal access to quality health care, and inadequate sanitation resources. Compared to the general population, homeless individuals who are infected with the virus are twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require critical care, and two to three times as likely to die.

In an interview with the HPR, Avik Chatterjee, a physician with the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, said that in an effort to provide housing to more people, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency had to open up alternative, temporary shelter spaces. Regardless, the virus still spread like wildfire. “By the time America got ramped up to be able to test people … we were already too late,” Chatterjee said. “One of the reasons that it had spread so much, and people didn’t know it, is because so many of our patients were asymptomatic with it.” As those in shelters leave during the daytime and return to confined quarters, the virus is easily and unknowingly transmitted. 

While homeless shelters have faced multiple challenges in recent times, COVID-19 has also amplified the burdens placed on the unsheltered community living in street encampments. Whether they are tent cities or skid rows, space is a luxury for those living in homeless encampments. As shelters become overcrowded, there is no guaranteed bed for people to return to at the end of the day. Those experiencing unsheltered homelessness face even more severe health and safety concerns. They have insufficient access to hygiene and sanitation facilities, connection to services, and health care, and furthermore, there has been a halt in food pantry and soup kitchen operations. 

If individual housing options are not available, the CDC has urged local governments not to clear homeless encampments, since doing so may increase the spread of the coronavirus and break contact with health service providers. Instead, the agency recommends that governments allow people who are living unsheltered to remain where they are. In response, cities like Las Vegas have controversially sanctioned some areas as temporary encampments for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, including by painting designated sleeping areas in parking lots. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has opened up community centers where people can sleep and has provided buses to take them there. And in New York City, the Department of Homeless Services reserved hotel rooms to provide a safer alternative for homeless people, many of whom had been sleeping in subway cars.

Obligated to Give Up Space

Sometimes, space is not affordable. During the pandemic, America’s essential workers — farmers, grocery store workers, warehouse workers, bus drivers, and others — have often had to choose between their livelihood and their health. In an interview with the HPR, Harvard sociology professor Jason Beckfield noted that many workers in the lower wage service sector have been disproportionately impacted by the spatial dynamics of the pandemic. 

“People who do essential jobs don’t really have the luxury to not do them … they basically have to,” Beckfield said. “It just seems like a really grotesque irony that at the same time, the same workers are both essential and disposable in the way that they are compensated.” 

Despite some safety measures, essential workers face an elevated risk of contracting the virus compared to those who are able to stay home, in part due to the naturally close conditions of their workplaces. The working conditions within grocery stores, for example, are not conducive to physical distancing — workers often share break rooms, bathrooms, and devices for clocking in and out of their shifts. Furthermore, Beckfield worries that essential workers in these conditions could accidentally bring the virus home, exposing their communities to COVID-19.

He also notes the coronavirus’ potential to magnify inequalities that already impact essential workers and their households. More than one-third of workers in many frontline industries live in low-income families, and essential workers are disproportionately women, immigrants, or people of color — groups that are already marginalized. As essential workers find themselves forced to give up their space, they are unable to choose which spaces to work or live in, exacerbating their disadvantages and putting themselves and their family’s health at risk. 

Beckfield says that this unfortunate reality illustrates the need for a public safety net. “This kind of pandemic is simply too large of a scale for the Swiss cheese welfare state we have,” he told the HPR. According to him, the United States should be more proactive in its response to the coronavirus, using the crisis to address long-standing structural inequalities.

Social distancing is unfeasible without physical space. Yet, those who have been living on the periphery of society are now bearing the brunt of this disease due to unrealistic assumptions about people’s universal access to space. For marginalized populations, it has always been hard to come by, but now the spatial dynamics of COVID-19 have pushed it even farther out of reach. This virus has pushed the United States toward greater inequity — now, as the nation emerges from the pandemic, it is imperative to address the systematic disparities that plague the nation’s most vulnerable communities.

If you have experienced and/or are a survivor of abuse and/or violence, please feel free to use the resources listed below:

  • Anti-Violence Project offers a 24-hour English/Spanish hotline for L.G.B.T.Q.+ experiencing abuse or hate-based violence: call 212-714-1141
  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available around the clock and in more than 200 languages: call 1-800-799-SAFE or chat with their advocates here or text LOVEIS to 22522.
  • For immediate dangers, call 911.

Image source: Brandi Ibrao / Unsplash

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