Homelessness has continued to be a big issue on Long Island during the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s expected to get worse, one group said.
With the coronavirus changing many aspects of daily life, one Long Island organization had to find a way to help people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.
A recent report by Porch found that New York has the largest homeless population in the country. According to the report, the homelessness rate across the country fell between 2007 and 2019 but has begun to increase amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The study found that in New York, there are 92,091 homeless people, including 49,978 who are among families with children.
On Long Island, the Amityville-based Long Island Coalition for the Homeless found that while the number of adults experiencing homelessness has remained the same or increased slightly month to month, there was a significant decrease in families experiencing homelessness in 2020.
Michael Giuffrida, the group’s associate director, told Patch the decrease was due to various state and federal eviction protections put in place during the pandemic, which is not expected to continue this year. He said once eviction protections are lifted and people feel safer to gather in shelters, there will be a significant increase in homeless families in the fall.
“COVID has put those who live in congregate settings and on the street at most risk for contracting the illness,” Thanh Pham, the group’s community outreach and support specialist, said. “It is especially difficult for those who reside in congregate settings to isolate and social distance. Testing was extremely limited in the beginning months and has gotten better over time.”
Over the past year, the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless adjusted by focusing on safety and health in addition to housing. The group addressed immediate needs like access to food, personal protective equipment and coronavirus testing before working on housing plans. Members also delivered food and supplies to hundreds of families who were isolated in motels.
“We had to significantly leverage technology and minimize face-to-face interactions,” Giuffrida said. “We added a crisis counselor team to our COVID response efforts. There is a current focus on providing guidance and information around access to vaccines.”
Pham says she had to adjust by working from home most days and having to rely on email, phone or video chat.
“Housing providers look to us for updates within our region and we are always communicating with one another,” she said. “Likewise, we are always paying attention to what is happening on the state and federal level. This field that we are in is very hands-on and person-centered. It has not been easy, but we are adjusting to the best of our ability.”
Giuffrida said homelessness is tied to failure in health care, criminal justice and child welfare.
“The homeless response system is often looked at as the problem, when they are the under-funded response at the end of the line of other systems that have already failed people,” he said.
He found that many people have the misconception that homelessness cannot happen to them or equate homelessness to what they see, which may be someone living outdoors.
“The majority of people living outdoors are single males,” he said. “People living unsheltered make up less than 5 percent of people experiencing homelessness, as most reside in shelters, and most are women and children who cannot afford rent on Long Island, as well as victims of domestic violence and abuse, and aging adults that are priced out of housing on fixed incomes.”
He said he has found some believe homelessness is not a significant issue on Long Island. But it has as many people experiencing homelessness as other large major cities and people, on average, experience homelessness on Long Island longer than most other places around the country, he said.
“The lack of affordable housing and housing discrimination are leading causes of homelessness locally,” he said.
Pham said she receives emails and social media messages “all the time” from people who had no idea that homelessness is a problem on Long Island. They also did not realize the number of people experiencing homelessness was so high, she said.
“For most people, they associate homelessness as a disheveled-looking person, sleeping outside, and asking for money,” she said. “This is not the case, homelessness does not have to be ‘visible’ or ‘obvious.’ People also assume that housing is one-dimensional when in reality, housing contributes to health care, education, employment, opportunity, environment, social supports, et cetera.”
For those who want to help, Pham said they should support the agencies that work with the homeless population.
“Advocate for this population because as we know, housing impacts the quality of your life,” she said. “Please do your part in educating yourself to the complexity of homelessness and its cross-sector correlations between other systems.”
Giuffrida echoed that sentiment, adding that NIMBYism, an acronym “not in my backyard,” and racism are barriers to addressing homelessness as well.
“Taking on tough and uncomfortable issues such as racism can lead to more equitable outcomes for people on Long Island,” he said.