As we enter (hopefully) the final phase of the COVID pandemic with vaccinations, it is unclear in many states if there is a plan to inoculate every resident of the state facing a housing emergency.
California has the nation’s largest homeless population and has yet to clearly define their plan to distribute the vaccine to the hundreds of thousand people experiencing homelessness, or frontline homeless services workers. The is not just an issue of reaching folks who are homeless. The narrow Federal definition of homelessness prevents many from being clearly defined as vulnerable.
The National Coalition for the Homeless is asking the California Department of Public Health to prioritize vaccinations for all those without a stable place to live, those living outside or in a shelter, and those who work in service to these folks.
While the statewide plan issued by the Department of Public Health makes some mention of homelessness, direction on how to vaccinate all people who do not have permanent housing is vague. There are huge numbers of people sleeping outside in California and no real plan to reach this difficult to serve population. In addition, it is unclear if those who were recently relocated into housing meet the definition of homeless. We are asking for California officials to provide a clear plan that local communities can implement that takes into account the diverse needs of all of those experiencing homelessness.
Very few states, in fact, have published comprehensive plans to get COVID vaccines to the entire population of people who are unhoused. We are urging our advocacy network throughout the United States to reach out to their state health departments to ask if there are detailed plans to vaccinate homeless people. We hope that the media begin to ask these questions as well. We would ask that these plans be published on the state health department websites so that they can be implemented on the local level.
The National Coalition for the Homeless is hearing mixed messages from social service providers and there is a great deal of confusion in the field about the vaccination program and how homeless people fit into the plans. Now, as the country prepares to vaccinate the population, in most states there is no sign yet that homeless people, those who serve homeless people, are a priority to access to the vaccine.
For those in California: Contact Dr. Tomás Aragón, the State Director of Public Health, at 516-553-1784. Tag @CApublicHealth in a tweet with the hashtag #VaccinateHomeless, or drop them a note on Facebook @capublichealth. “Please clarify when all homeless people, homeless and hunger social service providers (including those serving homeless people in permanent housing programs), throughout the state will be vaccinated.”
For those outside of California, please contact your state health department with a similar message to be made public.
According to George Santayana “An artist is a dreamer consenting to dream of the actual world,” which pretty much sums up the world occupied by homeless activist Richard Troxell who currently resides in Union County North Carolina.
Most of Richard’s work was in Austin, Texas, where he caused the most trouble and left his mark with a sculpture he designed called “the Homecoming” at Community First! Village. Richard can give you an hour’s long narrative about the chance meeting between the elderly woman depicted in the sculpture and the man and her daughter. He can give you the military background of the dad and how the elderly woman’s journey led to this place. This 7 year quest to bring this sculpture from concept to learning how to cast sculptures to collaborating with other artists to finally seeing his creation placed in 2019 is a dream realized for any artist, but the grassroots organizing and assistance offered by Richard to those oppressed by society may be his biggest impact on the world.
Richard had a day job helping people navigate the legal and social services network in Austin, but he had a side gig as the face of House the Homeless to twist the arms of city officials to stop pushing around people experiencing homelessness. Pushing people out of the arts areas of Austin; pushing them away from South by Southwest conference; pushing them off park benches, and pushing them out of sight. While everyone thinks Austin is some liberal oasis in the middle of a right wing fundamentalist state, sometimes the worst people who strip you of your rights are those with so called liberal beliefs. In the 1990s, nearly every city in the United States led by “progressive-man-of-the-people” mayors were horrible places to live for those experiencing homelessness. Chicago, San Francisco, Cleveland, and Seattle all had Mayors who were just cruel and heartless to homeless people. The City of Austin was no different with police sweeps, selective enforcement of certain laws, and attacks of free speech panhandling like the other liberal bastions. Richard found success fighting the “No Camping” ordinance in the courts after five years and argued his case for more humanity from City Hall in the court of public opinion. He fought disorderly conduct tickets for existing as a person without a home and regular attempts to shut down the shelters. Many cities including Austin pass these laws under the umbrella of “Quality of Life” ordinances. They are more appropriately called “Quality of Life for Mostly White Visitors to the City” ordinances, but they typically targeted the lowest income members of society. Richard successfully fought against an ordinance that made it illegal for certain people to rest in public which then began a cascade of other similar laws to fall.
Richard set up a huge fall event for 18 years to give out long underwear and winter gear to those facing a tough cold winter without regular shelter. The Thermal Underwear that “winterized them” and threw live music parties serving over 600 people, while his wife, Sylvia served them ham with cakes and pies, cornbread and real butter etc. (This event continues to this day.) He passed out hats during heat waves, emergency whistles to fend off serial assaults, and he worked to get those without a roof, some privacy in our society.
Semi-retired and relocated to North Carolina making personal COVID-19 face masks, Richard is now the national field general for House the Homeless and still on the quest to get the Universal Living Wage to be a part of the national discussion. Richard joined the National Coalition for the Homeless way back in the early 1990s and has always felt that the key to ending homelessness is giving people enough income to be able to sustain themselves free from shifting winds of benevolence from government or the religious sector. Richard wants to see a second statue in Washington DC to memorialize all the homeless individuals who did not survive without a roof over their head. He has become very interested in pushing for Social Security to be more equitable and not doom a person to a life of poverty if they are disabled. He would like to see social security income, SSI, assistance paired with a housing subsidy that limits the amount a person pays toward rent to no more than 30% of their income or even better 25% of their income as it was during the Nixon administration. In this way, people who cannot work will be able lift themselves off our streets. He will always bring the discussion back to honoring a person’s labor by paying them a wage that provides them the basic standard of living in a community. If Richard attends the meeting, he is going to bring up the need for a universal living wage in America. I was always surprised that he did not bring a neon sign with the Universal Living Wage logo so that he could turn on and off at various times during the National Coalition for the Homeless board meeting.
He moved from the state with the highest number of uninsured people in the United States in Texas to the rural county of Union, North Carolina which boasts a large number of uninsured as well at 12.3%. So, plenty of work for Richard in North Carolina. Child poverty in Austin was around 13.1% when he left with about 12% of the population living in poverty while only 7.3% of the population of rural North Carolina live below the poverty level. The unemployment rate in Austin is around 6.3% while it is only 5% in Union County North Carolina. The semi-blue state of North Carolina has a partial postponement of evictions while the deep red state of Texas only has the federal CDC moratorium on evictions. All other state and local restrictions on evictions have expired during this pandemic in Texas. Austin is the fastest growing metro area in the United States, but it also boasts the widest income disparity of any community.
Two other goals for Richard that he has been looking at as the new administration begins in Washington include a federal ban on discharges onto the streets as well as more involvement by the US Department of Transportation under the guidance of newly ratified Transportation Cabinet Member, Mayor Pete Buttigieg to include those sleeping under the highway bridges of America in the plan to improve infrastructure. It is a sad reality in the United States that many sexually based offenders cannot find housing anywhere after they have served their time and often turn to encampments mostly under the nation’s highways. This is not to say everyone who lives under bridges are sexually based offenders, but there are a disproportionate number. This has led to absurd situations where offenders register with the County sheriff a highway bridge as their permanent residence, which is certainly not the safest or most effective way to reduce recidivism. In fact, the current method for tracking offenders is probably the dumbest and worst strategy on the planet to keep society safe. Richard saw the big plans for investing in roads and bridges out of the Biden administration and wants housing to be a part of that plan that would create a lot of well paying jobs. This is not to reward sexually based offenders, but to keep all society safe by reducing risks.
California passed a law Senate Bill 1152 in 2018 which attempts to eliminate hospitals from dumping patients onto the streets, and sets up a training protocol to prevent people showing up at the shelter in cabs with their hospital gown and an IV bag still attached. Richard would like to see this law expanded to include alcohol and drug treatment programs as well as mental health institutions; given some teeth for a strong enforcement mechanisms, and expanded to every health care facility that receives Health and Human Services dollars in the United States. He also has toyed with the idea of seeing the same apply to all federal institutions so that there has to be some thought about where an individual will live after leaving the US military, housing subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development or the Department of Agriculture or even those released from a federal penitentiary. Richard demands that we discharge no one into homelessness (with strong enforcement). After a period of extreme cruelty by the United States government where we caged kids and separated them from their family, reinstated the federal death penalty and banned people from entering the country because of their religion, it is time to bring back a government of compassion and concern for the well being of everyone living within its borders.
Richard is a published author, Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle for the Living Wage, which carries on through today as he is in the process of publishing his latest book, Short Stories in a Long Journey. He self-published, Striking a Balance (about pending gentrification in East Austin) and Ending Homeless at its Core-Richard’s first e-book. If you are interested in more of his history of activism, you can pick them up on Amazon. He will continue to work toward economic justice as well as civil rights for the most vulnerable in our society albeit in a slightly more compassionate community in North Carolina. He combines the passions of an artist with the common sense of an advocate and the knowledge of a social worker making him one of the best friends to have if you do not have housing in America.
The population of people experiencing homelessness is diverse and may need different strategies to best serve their individual needs. For example, two dose vaccines pose a challenge for people who live unsheltered on the streets in cars or encampments, as they often are forced to move and therefore cannot always be found by outreach workers, and therefore might never receive the second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines. Cononie is encouraging communities to wait a couple of weeks and use the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine when it is approved for use. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be administered in just one dose, plus, it is easier to transport to those on the streets, and does not require the extreme cold storage that the other two vaccines require. (Please note, NCH encourages all to access whatever vaccine is available to them.)
Cononie has worked on the streets for decades in South Florida and currently travels the streets of Broward County assisting those largely forgotten by the rest of society. He has set up a firehouse model of emergency responders who go out on the street around the clock to provide personal protective gear, masks, water, and COVID tests. He can help house individuals if they are interested and can work to quarantine individuals who are recovering.
Unfortunately, Cononie, a board member of the National Coalition for the Homeless, reports that the response in South Florida to the pandemic has been scatter shot at best. He has seen mistreatment of those experiencing homelessness at some of the local hospital emergency rooms, and Cononie said some of the hospitals have given up on serving homeless people altogether. Many people who are homeless report that hospitals will just give them a blanket, some food and then send them on their way saying, “Come back if it gets worse.”
Some cities have been successful in housing vulnerable and quarantined unhoused folks in hotel rooms, or other temporary housing. Cononie believes that his local health care system needs to find safe accommodation for those without housing to recuperate even if their symptoms are mild. The risk of them passing the virus to a large number of people at meal programs or shelters is significant and has deadly consequences for the fragile population served by the homeless continuum.
In South Florida, as in many communities, systems have either forgotten the population or have set up bureaucracies that make it impossible for those without an address to participate in programs that would keep them safe. The religious community has stepped up to help with meals and other basics, but the need is continually increasing as the pandemic has worn on. Broward County has a relatively high unemployment rate of 7.3%, and 14.6% of the Southern Florida population do not have health insurance, both of which can lead to increases in homelessness. Cononie is committed to bringing resources to people often forgotten to get them through this global health crisis.