Long emergencies: Covid, climate, homelessness

October 1, 2023

At first, U.S. society treated the Covid-19 pandemic as an emergency requiring collective solutions. Now we pretend it’s over and treat staying healthy as an individual matter. I live in San Francisco and hang out in progressive spaces that were some of the last holdouts in urging and giving out masks. Now, even though the new Covid surge is making more of my friends sick than ever, masks are a rare sight. Anywhere outside SF, they’re unheard of. Collective health is out; rugged individualism is in. If you’re immunocompromised: sorry, but everyone’s tired of being inconvenienced just for the small matter of your survival. We’re living in the “You do you” era.

The shift is troubling. Not only in its own right, but for what it suggests might be coming with climate change. As disasters make entire cities uninhabitable, I’d hope that people would respond with solidarity, helping one another survive. What’s happening with Covid suggests the dark possibility that we might get all solidaritied out. We might try to help one another for a little while, but then as the more fortunate among us return to a semblance of normality, maybe we’ll get tired of all that and decide to shun the least resourced, who are still struggling to get back on their feet.

Maybe Covid is not the first example. Homelessness, as we understand the word today, was a new phenomenon in the U.S. in the late 1970s and early 80s. In Homelessness Is a Housing Problem, Colburn and Page write that homelessness was believed to be “a consequence of the economic downturn of the late 1970s and would evaporate once the economy rebounded. Consistent with this perception, early efforts to manage homelessness were managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—as if the crisis were temporary; akin to a flood or earthquake” (46-7).

Homelessness, once treated as a shocking misfortune we as a society would surely quickly overcome, is now considered an individual problem and a condition to be managed for the comfort of those lucky enough not to be experiencing it. Toro Castaño, a homeless man in SF, was jerked around by City-funded nonprofits with fake offers of shelter. Then City workers threw out all his belongings (a common story). As the Chronicle reports:

“The things I lost that day were irreplaceable,” he said. In all, Castaño said, about $10,000 worth of his belongings — including a tent, a MacBook Pro computer and a road bike — were destroyed. Most painful were the hundreds of photos and documents on his laptop and his mother’s wedding Kimono.

Far from empathizing with Castaño’s losses, city supervisor Rafael Mandelman blamed Castaño for being homeless: “This is a guy who’s flagrantly breaking the law.1 The frustration of folks in the neighborhood is rooted in the sense that he is taking the city for a ride.”

In Housing Is a Homelessness Problem, Colburn and Page point out that homelessness is eminently solvable. We know what policies work. We just aren’t doing them enough. But the tendency toward dehumanization and othering stands in the way (177). To make solutions politically possible, we’d probably have to shift perceptions of people experiencing homelessness.

That’s easier said than done, but in the early Covid era, when there was widespread support for social distancing and masking and when we clapped for healthcare workers, solidarity seemed possible. At a very dark time, there was, at least, a popular understanding that we were all connected and had to get through this together. If we can find a way to undo the process of normalizing Covid sickness, maybe we can also do it for homelessness and climate disaster, and work toward solutions for all these long emergencies.

  1. Actually, a judge found the City of San Francisco to be flagrantly violating the law by displacing homeless people without offering anywhere to go. Castaño is a plaintiff in that lawsuit, which seems to have triggered Mandelman’s especially vicious remarks toward him. Considering SF’s many examples of housed people committing violent attacks against homeless people, I consider Castaño brave for putting himself forward in this way. 

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