Op-Ed: A Call to Action on Race, Homelessness and COVID-19

Op-Ed: A Call to Action on Race, Homelessness and COVID-19
Evan Semón
It’s time to talk about race. The COVID-19 pandemic has put in clear relief the underlying relationship between housing, health care and systemic racism in our country. It’s time to dedicate the time, attention and resources to addressing race in the face of COVID by creating a task force specifically aimed at addressing the racial inequities that mean a disproportionate number of Black and Brown people are dying. We must act on this issue and save lives.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen communities across the nation experiencing a mounting overrepresentation of Black and Brown people contracting and ultimately dying due to the pandemic. Similar to what we see consistently in homelessness data, there is an overrepresentation of certain races and ethnicities, specifically Black people and Native Americans. For example, in Chicago, a city where just 30 percent of the overall population is Black, 70 percent of COVID-related deaths are in the Black community. Denver Public Health data shows that Colorado isn’t immune to this disparity. In Denver, 12 percent of the COVID cases are Black people, yet they comprise a mere 8 percent of the overall population. This isn’t a conservative vs. progressive issue: It’s a nationwide issue of character and values. This reality is unacceptable. And it’s disgraceful.

Keeping our entire community safe during COVID-19 requires social distancing, sheltering in place, and reliable access to hygiene. For our unhoused neighbors, none of these are possible, adding to the uncertainty during this incredibly dangerous time. In Colorado, data on COVID-19 death rates is currently available only by geography, not by race. Thankfully a recent shift will make this data available moving forward, but this comes as we’re already weeks into this pandemic and valuable time was lost.

Unfortunately, the same racial disparities that are manifesting themselves in the COVID-19 crisis mirror the systemic racism found in our community’s homelessness crisis. For example, in the metro Denver area, there is a vast overrepresentation of people who identify as Black or African American experiencing homelessness. An individual is four times more likely to experience homelessness if they are Black and twelve times more likely if Native American than white. The overrepresentation of Black and Native American people has long been an issue in homelessness, and as the weeks of social isolation and quarantine stretch on, we are seeing the same alarming trends that are present in homelessness play out in COVID-19-related death rates. We can’t afford to ignore the realities of systemic racism in this country and its impact on basic needs and health. If we do, more people will die, and their deaths will be a direct result of our unwillingness to meaningfully address systemic racial inequities.

Recognizing that racial inequity is entrenched in the homelessness crisis, over the past year the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, with the leadership of the MDHI Equity and Accessibility Committee, has made a resolute commitment to addressing the systemic flaws in our homelessness response and housing system. During COVID-19, we cannot shelve racial equity. MDHI is not only confirming our commitment to racial equity in our response, we are asking that it be a priority to metro Denver's COVID-19 response, to ensure that our community does not join the many others in ignoring the importance of this issue in fighting this pandemic. We are holding firmly to our standards of racial equity and are focused on housing as a solution not just to homelessness, but to this worldwide pandemic, as we believe this is the only path to keep all our housed and unhoused neighbors safe. Racial equity must be central in all responses to the pandemic.

MDHI’s Equity and Accessibility Committee crafted several key recommendations to address the racial inequities in our community during COVID-19. Among them is a call for a statewide task force, like those being created in other states, tasked with a racially equitable system design and intended to prohibit racially inequitable health-care and housing outcomes during the COVID-19 response. It is a moral imperative that the task force include individuals with lived experience of homelessness and from other marginalized communities, along with decision-makers from health care, public health, community leaders, lawmakers, the faith community and other community stakeholders, who can come together for swift action on this issue. Lived experience will bring a critical viewpoint to the activities of this task force. Including representation from many different communities will help to ensure that no community’s needs are neglected or undervalued during this time of urgency and expediency.

We’re asking for action to save lives. Let’s ensure that Colorado uses this crisis as an opportunity to redress the profound harms of racial inequity in both our housing and health-care systems.

Passionate about improving the lives of marginalized members of our community, Dr. Matt Meyer has been leading nonprofit mental health organizations for the past thirteen years. He has worked extensively with older adolescents aging out of foster care, people with serious mental illness, and people experiencing both mental health and addictions who are involved with the criminal justice system. Organizationally, his focus has been on
program development, creating public-private partnerships, process improvement and strategy. He is currently the executive director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative.

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