The West Coast’s massive homeless populations represent a significant coronavirus weak spot that needs to be protected.
Without direct action to move homeless people off the streets and into clean housing we risk two outcomes:
- Homeless people who are unwilling or unable to seek medical attention die in tents and on sidewalks.
- We fail to control the virus because the homeless population serves as a viral reservoir.
Where Do We Start?
Data Notes: Data is presented at the lowest level of detail possible. For coronavirus this means county level. The lowest level of homeless data is a ‘Continuum of Care’ (CoC). CoC sizes are variable, for example the entire state of Montana has one CoC, while San Francisco is its own CoC and is only 47 square miles.
Below you can see US coronavirus confirmed case and unsheltered homeless data on interactive maps. So far there is some overlap, notably in New York City, Miami, LA, San Francisco and Seattle.
The first map has a dropdown menu that allows you to select individual states. On all maps you can hover or click to see more information.
Numbers on the maps below indicate the CoC unsheltered homeless density rank and total county coronavirus cases.
California appears to be at significant risk due to high coronavirus and unsheltered homeless numbers in LA County. The San Francisco Bay Area has fewer coronavirus cases than LA County but SF has extreme homeless density.
The San Francisco CoC has an unsheltered homeless density of 110 people per square mile, which is 4 times greater than the next most dense CoC in the country.
King County, Washington had the first coronavirus case in the USA. This is where Seattle is located and they have a very large homeless population, with over 5,000 of them unsheltered.
Portland is in Multnomah County, which has the 18th highest homeless density in the country (4.3 ppl/sq mile) and the number of coronavirus cases has been growing.
In Florida there are fewer homeless people than on the West Coast. However, Broward County has over 1,000 unsheltered homeless people in close proximity to coronavirus hotspots in Southern Florida.
New York City has the most coronavirus cases in the nation and more than 90,000 homeless people total. Fortunately, compared to the Bay Area and LA County, there are fewer unsheltered homeless people (3,600 of them in NYC). But the unsheltered homeless density is still over 11 people per square mile, which is the 4th most dense unsheltered homeless population in the US.
What Can We Do?
Dr. Ben Carson, secretary of the HUD, has spoken about the need to get homeless people off of the streets and into organized outdoor camps before the coronavirus hits them.
This idea is better than concentrating masses of people indoors and far better than letting homeless people die on the streets.
Dr. Carson recommends setting up camps on public lands, where they have a lower risk of spreading the disease. In this type of setting medical workers could make rounds in the camp. Anyone who is sick could be given treatment in isolation without spreading it to others.
Vulnerable homeless populations are a significant public health issue that must be addressed by elected officials. The time to do something is now. Otherwise we will be playing catch up as we put out viral hotspots far into the future.
If you are interested in seeing more data, then you can use the dashboard below to explore.