No thinker, philosopher or theologian can tell you whether sickness or homelessness is more frightening. With the onset of the pandemic, millions of Americans have now experienced the fear of both.
I know from personal experience that one catastrophe can worsen the other.
In 2012, I received an emergency nephrectomy to remove a life-threatening cancerous kidney. I was very sick and nauseous. Given my druthers, I would have opted to wait until I was financially able to take three months off work to recuperate. I wasn’t protected by a job with paid sick leave benefits that would keep me solvent until I could function again. I had no choice but to proceed to have the surgery while shadowed with the fear of my looming financial crisis.
I was plagued by questions like: How long will I need to recover? Can I recuperate in less than the usual one-to-two months? Will I be able to eat, or pay next month’s rent if I can’t work?
This wasn’t the first time in my life I had been threatened with losing my home, living in cities where affordable housing programs were so backlogged they had us on a minimum two-year waitlist. This time I wondered, if I spiraled into homelessness, having to live in my car, or stay in shelters, how long before I got sick? How badly?
How likely was it that by opting to have this surgery, I would be putting myself in jeopardy that could lead to death? The financial realities ensnared me in a vicious circle.
Fortunately, I survived my surgery without becoming homeless. But a scar remains from the memory. It brought home the importance of both the need for paid sick leave and protecting the vulnerable, the sick and the aged against homelessness. No one should have to choose between surviving cancer or maintaining a roof over their head.
America needs viable social safety net and health care systems. Thirty-three million American – almost a quarter of the workforce – lack paid sick leave. And 90 percent of employees say they go to work when they’re sick. They can’t afford to lose even one check or risk falling behind on the rent or utilities. The number of cost-burdened renters has steadily increased over the last decade as housing costs continue to rise while wages remain stagnant.
We know from my story and millions of others across the country that poverty, sickness and homelessness are a vicious cycle. They had been inextricably linked in the daily experiences of American families long before the news was dominated by the virus, vaccines or eviction moratoriums.
But the pandemic has substantially worsened our health and housing crises. We have millions of Americans whose jobs have been eliminated, or their hours shortened, while they are still responsible for rent. The government has extended eviction moratoriums. But a moratorium which doesn’t absolve monthly rent and utility debt still leaves millions in a financial bind. Loopholes in state law have still allowed evictions to take place. We have to act now while the pandemic rages to create policies that allow us not just to survive through the next month, but to thrive long term.
The new COVID-19 relief and recovery bills must include enhanced housing protections and unrestricted paid leave and sick time. We need to invest billions to provide emergency assistance so everyone – homeowners struggling to pay mortgages, at risk renters and the poor – can be settled inside a safe space called home. And we need national investments in affordable housing beyond the pandemic.
Hope is on the horizon since the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines, but while we protect Americans with immunity against the virus, we can’t let them fall prey to poverty, homelessness or illnesses. Committing to housing safety protections in COVID-19 recovery is a public health mandate and moral imperative for the new, post-pandemic America.