Coalition for the Homeless Testifies on the Disparate Impact of COVID-19 on Homeless People in New York City

As the new coronavirus (the pathogen that causes COVID-19) began to spread across New York City, it soon became clear that the legacy of systemic oppression and inequality had placed some New Yorkers at far greater risk of contracting and succumbing to the virus. People of color, and particularly those who are low-income or homeless, have been disproportionately affected by the deadly pandemic. Coalition for the Homeless has worked tirelessly for decades to combat the systemic inequities that have fueled modern mass homelessness, and for the past two months we have called for urgent policy changes to help protect our most vulnerable neighbors. (Our COVID-19 policy recommendations can be read here, and our recent correspondence with elected officials is available here.) Coronavirus has shown in devastating clarity that the interlocking injustices of racism and poverty are matters of life and death.

On May 18, 2020, Coalition for the Homeless submitted testimony to the New York State Legislature on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on minority communities, including a disproportionately higher mortality rate among homeless New Yorkers sleeping in shelters. The testimony chronicled the delayed, inconsistent, and inadequate City and State responses to the pandemic in the early months, and recommended policies needed to curb the spread of the virus and better help New Yorkers who are homeless and at risk of losing their homes. We wrote:

New York City was facing record homelessness prior to the coronavirus pandemic and the virus has only further magnified the holes in the social safety net, with its disproportionate impact on homeless New Yorkers. Since COVID-19 began spreading through New York City, the lack of access to safe private spaces for homeless people has exacerbated transmission, hospitalization, and deaths among this vulnerable group of individuals and families, with those living in congregate shelters finding themselves to be at particularly high risk.

Many unsheltered homeless individuals reasonably fear the spread of COVID-19 within the shelter system: As of May 13th, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) reported 770 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases across approximately 174 shelter locations. As of that date, DHS had reported COVID-19-related deaths among 75 homeless people. In the month of April alone, 58 homeless people died of COVID-19, the vast majority (54) among homeless people living in shelters. In comparison, during fiscal year 2019, an average of 34 homeless people died each month, including 21 in shelters. Thus, the number of COVID-19-related deaths among homeless New Yorkers in shelters in April 2020 was 157 percent higher than the number of deaths from all causes during an average month in 2019.

Because the sheltered homeless population skews much younger than the general New York City population, and COVID-19 is known to be particularly deadly among older adults, an age-adjusted analysis is helpful in making a comparison between mortality rates for homeless New Yorkers and those for the NYC population generally. In consultation with Charles Cleland, PhD, a biostatistician at NYU, Coalition for the Homeless calculated the age-adjusted mortality rates among sheltered homeless New Yorkers to date. As of May 13th, the overall New York City mortality rate due to COVID-19 was 187 deaths per 100,000 people. For sheltered homeless New Yorkers, it was 291 deaths per 100,000 people – or 56 percent higher than the New York City rate. This means that many more homeless people have died from COVID-19 than would have been expected if they were dying at the same rate as all NYC residents. The reported New York State mortality rate is 139 deaths per 100,000 people.

Black and Hispanic/Latinx New Yorkers are disproportionately affected by homelessness, and these communities are also disproportionally affected by COVID-19. Approximately 57 percent of heads of household in shelters are Black, 32 percent are Hispanic/Latinx, 7 percent are White, less than 1 percent are Asian-American or Native American, and 3 percent are of unknown race/ethnicity. Research conducted by Pew during the second week of April revealed that Black adults nationwide were more than twice as likely to know someone who had been hospitalized or died as a result of COVID-19 (27 percent) compared with just 13 percent each among White and Latinx adults.

The full testimony can be read here.