Number of people living on the streets could triple in the months ahead

Eviction moratoriums, unemployment benefits, student loan repayment reprieves are ending, homeless shelters aren't a good option and there's no more relief in sight.

Jacob van Cleef

Former Consumer Watchdog, Associate, PIRG

The year 2020 is coming to an end. Take that in … 2021 is on the way. For many, the end of the year is a call for celebration because this year has been filled with mayhem: COVID, wildfires, hurricanes, political unrest and too much more. While people celebrate the new year on Jan. 1, more than 14 million people could be preparing to lose their homes soon, compared with 567,715 who were homeless on a given night in 2019. Even if just 10 percent of people at risk of eviction actually become homeless, that would more than triple the national homeless population.

Economic turmoil this year forced the hand of the federal government to step in. The U.S. government gave a one-time economic impact payment and halted evictions until Dec. 31, 2020, through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Though some states adopted eviction moratoriums that last as long as COVID-19 is deemed an emergency, the majority of states lack any protection for those struggling to pay rent. This comes at the same time as workers’ unemployment benefits are ending in some states and the freeze on student loan repayment will expire Jan. 31. All of this adds up to immense financial insecurity hitting at one of the worst possible times. Without protections, tenants could face utility shutoffs or evictions. With minimal protections, more people will be put onto the streets in the middle of winter during the COVID-19 pandemic. That leads to a multitude of negative potential consequences. 

Folks would be forced to find adequate shelter in the dead of winter; the harsh weather that comes with that could bring illness and death to the homeless, separate from the pandemic. Without homes, people must find other accommodations. Those newly evicted normally could go to homeless shelters, but shelters are limiting capacities and are still struggling to limit COVID outbreaks. Another potential option would be friends and family who could potentially break quarantine to take them in. Those options would likely not be enough to house the potential 14 million people searching for shelter. That could mean joining the tent cities in parks, even though some residents are trying to force the homeless populations out of tent cities in parks. Otherwise, the newly evicted will try to find space on the streets. Without widespread aid, the potential outcomes look bleak.

There are additional worries beyond lacking shelter in the winter. As mentioned, homeless people are at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development hasn’t compiled data on how the pandemic has affected this population, and municipalities decide whether to collect data, so there is not accurate information. Researchers estimated in March that more than 20,000 homeless people would need to be hospitalized by the end of the pandemic. Various communities have produced data, but no nationwide data have come out supporting or rejecting that projection. 

Logically, homelessness reduces one’s ability to stay safe, social distance and quarantine. Besides getting lucky enough to have friends or family able to accept more into their home, alternate accommodations would call into question one’s ability to follow CDC guidelines.

The pandemic affects many children’s ability to learn at school by forcing them into new learning environments, whether new ways of learning at school or learning from home. With the current spike in COVID-19 cases across the country, it’s unknown whether any school will stay open for in-person classes during the rest of the pandemic. Homelessness hinders the quality of education for students normally, but the pandemic adds the difficulty of trying to learn on a computer when there is no access to the internet. That can have long-term effects on the students and set them back in their development. How else are they supposed to learn in a pandemic?

The potential outcomes following mass evictions are catastrophic. The last time the United States saw the homeless population rise into the millions was during the Great Depression. Paperwork for evictions has already been filed across the nation. Once the moratorium ends on Jan. 1, the courts can process that paperwork. We could see millions of homeless again unless states or the federal government act now. Whether it’s extending the moratorium, putting makeshift public housing in place, sending stimulus or some other policy, the most important thing is that the problem gets addressed.


Jacob van Cleef

Former Consumer Watchdog, Associate, PIRG