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"Once the pandemic hit, it was very clear that nothing was going to be done to support the unhoused people in the area who were not able to use the bathrooms, not able to get food anywhere—not even the leftovers they used to pick up off the street. They didn't have access to information, so I started gathering donations and asking for support, and within a few weeks we had a team of about 20 people going out every single day."

— Jasmine Araujo, founder of Southern Solidarity

Sarah Glen, Audience Manager: In January, an annual report to Congress on homelessness in America painted a bleak picture: For the fourth year in a row, the number of people experiencing homelessness has increased. In those four years, racial disparities—especially for Black families—have become more entrenched, and by last year, even slight progress that had been made in veteran communities in 2019 was erased.

What's more: The report was based on data from January 2020, just before COVID-19 made housing an even more urgent crisis.

Homelessness, eviction, and food insecurity are far from new crises in this country, and every place I've lived has faced its own specific problems keeping people housed. But only in Texas, a state where more than 58,000 people have died of the coronavirus, have I seen politicking punch down on our most vulnerable so violently.

When COVID-19 hospitalizations were peaking in January, Texas Governor Greg Abbott found time to blame crime rates in Austin on the city's relaxation of camping bans.

Today, less than half of all Texans are fully vaccinated, and our state leaders are actively preventing local governments from enforcing regulations that can help keep people safe.

More than ever, we can't rely on the government to meet our basic societal needs. Whether we're talking about affordable housing or climate change, we're all we've got. I'll take those odds.

If you're looking for Jasmine Araujo, you'll likely find her in Penn Station offering up dry clothes, towels, and toiletries to New York City's unhoused population.

Before that, she could be spotted passing out food from the back of a Chevy pick-up truck in New Orleans, where she founded Southern Solidarity, a Black- and queer-led mutual aid organization that supports the city's unhoused folks.

For the last 18 months, Southern Solidarity volunteers have been providing food to about 250 people in New Orleans every day. Their work centers on directly meeting the needs their unhoused neighbors come to them with. 

That support has included sharing COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites in their weekly newsletters, but for the folks they're serving, the pandemic exists on top of a series of crises that were already there.

"The tricky thing is that unhoused folks can't really leave their property [behind] because it gets stolen or it gets thrown out by the police, so moving around the city to get a vaccine is difficult—unless they have a buddy to watch their stuff or a provider can come to them," Araujo explained. "Unhoused people are not just struggling with living on the street. Some have also been incarcerated before. Others have medical issues they're working through."

In addition to providing food and support getting government assistance, volunteers also got trained on how to administer NARCAN after overdose support was requested.

In the lead up to and aftermath of Hurricane Ida, their work has expanded to providing direct cash aid, battery-operated fans, ice, and more as hundreds of thousands across Louisiana went without power.

According to the Associated Press, a one-night tally in 2020 counted 580,000 people experiencing homelessness in the United States. Advocates say that total is almost certainly a severe undercount, with a more accurate total being upwards of 2 million people.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has acknowledged both the difficulty of helping unhoused folks get vaccinated—most don't have access to transit options—and the reality that they're more likely to be at risk of severe illness because of compounding health issues. But how we actually help our unhoused neighbors get vaccinated varies from city to city, and often relies on NGOs like Southern Solidarity.

In Texas, the pandemic brought a swift pivot to healthcare support for Austin's Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), a nonprofit that plans and implements strategies to end homelessness in Travis County.

The organization's main role is to act as a connector between different support systems. Part of their work is helping place people in temporary lodging that the city started providing at the beginning of the pandemic, and longer-term housing options. When it comes to helping unhoused folks get vaccinated, they've created flyers that show folks both where to get vaccinated and why they should consider it a safe option.

"Homelessness is a source of constant crisis," said Kate Moore, Austin ECHO's vice president of Strategic Planning and Partnerships."You're dealing with daily trauma. Where are you gonna use the bathroom? Where are you gonna get your next meal? Are you safe? With all of those daily crises, it can be really difficult to take the time to do something outside of your daily needs, like get a vaccine."

Moore says that the governor's comments on homelessness in the capital city and Austin voters' May decision to reinstate the citywide camping ban have added more obstacles to an already difficult job.

"It just makes it so much harder, and it's just cruel. It essentially criminalizes people's mere existence in poverty. Now, many people feel like they have to hide. It just makes the experience of being homeless that much more challenging. On top of everything else, now you've got to find a place where no one will bother you for existing."

— Kate Moore, vice president of Strategic Planning and Partnerships for Austin ECHO

Similarly to Austin, homeless encampments in Miami have been cleared out as well. That means the people Dr. Hansel Tookes, associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, used to deliver medicine to twice a week have disappeared.

"People who are unsheltered or experiencing homelessness, they had much lower rates of COVID-19 in 2020 because all of us were in our apartments, and they were outside," he said. "I got concerned when things went back to kind-of-normal, because then all of a sudden, the COVID burden that was existing in all of these apartments was back on the streets."

In December, organizers in Houston were similarly struggling to reconcile how an eviction moratorium could be allowed to end when statewide shelter-in-place orders were still in effect in Texas. The moratorium was extended, but now that federal protections have officially ended, the question of how to keep folks on the brink of eviction housed remains. 

As Birmingham activist Erica Robbins told Scalawag in 2019, that often means, "People are dying on the street for no good reason."

Robbins founded Be a Blessing Birmingham after seeing how many restrictions were placed on donated items at traditional shelters. The group provides hydration stations throughout the city and also hosts monthly supply drops.

"Sometimes it's about the little things like we do," she said. "The little hand ups—not handouts—but the hands up to help people be able to get a job. Someone might need a food handler's license. It might be a pair of shoes."

For the folks at Southern Solidarity, it's about listening to what those immediate needs are, and also playing the long-game to organize around affordable housing, a solution they'd be happy to see put their operation out of business.

In both New York and New Orleans, Arajuo said people have learned the hard way that they can't rely on the government to meet their needs. After living through a Texas freeze that knocked out power across the state for days and disrupted water supplies, I'm seeing the same sentiment—and not just from the folks you might expect to be distrustful of the government.

In moments of crisis or joy, Arajuo's request is the same: "Once disasters and crises aren't occurring, people forget about the unhoused. If you've supported a mutual aid group, continue and sustain that practice so we can continue getting folks the things they need."

Breaking Through COVID is a collection of stories focused on illuminating the ways the pandemic has realigned our communities and put sharper points on the crises the South was already facing.

We understand how wide open the door has been flung for the spread of misinformation and disinformation. We understand how deep the mistrust of the media is right now, too. Help us help each other. Tell us about the radical Southerners doing this work in your community. Especially in places without formal organizing infrastructure, how can we adapt some of their lessons in our own communities? Let us know.

breaking through covid

Sarah Glen is a journalist who loves community building, product strategy, and helping people. She grew up in North Carolina, spent five years in Brooklyn, and now lives in Austin, Texas—where she's probably sipping a cold brew on the porch and thinking about her to-read list.