What’s it like being homeless in a deadly pandemic? One man describes his life on the streets and how it’s changed through COVID-19

What’s it like being homeless in a deadly pandemic? One man describes his life on the streets and how it’s changed through COVID-19

Many on the streets have been left in the dark

VicesMay 08, 2020 By Will Brendza

Before COVID-19 shut down America and the World at Large, Andy Meals was getting help from a doctor to secure a place to stay, where he could try to be healthy; a place where he could get a roof over his head and his feet back on the ground; where he could get and keep a job.

Now, though, he’s wondering how he’s going to survive an employment recession — possibly even an all-out economic depression — without a home or stable income.

“I really want to get back on the path of getting a job,” he says.

Andy’s a Portland native, and he lives there still. He’s been homeless for about a year and a half now, due to health issues, and he’s doing everything he can to find a source of income and bring a sense of stability back into his life.

Thanks to COVID, though, he’s far from the only one. Over 30-million people have applied for unemployment benefits in recent weeks, and, according to the ADP National Employment Report released Wednesday, American businesses have cut some 20.2 million jobs in April alone.

It’s a situation that is making things all that more difficult for people in Andy’s shoes. He wants to work, he’s able to work and he even has computer skills and background working as a graphic designer and light coder for a mid-sized Oregon company. But none of that really matters when job hunting is so cutthroat — when everyone is looking to get hired over the next guy — and Andy can't even always access the web.  

Even the normal routes of income, many homeless people resort to, have been strangled by the COVID situation, Andy says.

“Our local street newspaper that homeless people could sell on street corners has suspended its print publication, cutting off one way for people to make some money,” he says. “Redeeming recyclable cans and bottles for money has [also] gotten tougher. Retailers' redemption sites have closed. A few independent machines are open, but there are fewer redeemables because fewer people are out consuming, and bars that would offer their bottles are closed.”

Even panhandling has slowed down since so few people are out, and the ones who are, are less inclined to interact with anyone on the street.

“I'm too embarrassed to panhandle, anyway, though,” Andy says.

Still, he’s found some financial relief doing online gig-work. But even those mundane online jobs that normally would be pretty easy to obtain, are getting vacuumed up much faster than they normally would.

“Lately, there are a lot more people competing for gigs, and they can bid lower if they're from lower-wage countries,” Andy explains. “I'm pretty sure this is because so many people around the world are out of a job right now.”

Work isn’t the only thing that homeless individuals like Andy are struggling with, though. He says that the lack of information most of the homeless community lives with, is making it hard for many to keep up with all that’s going on in the world. Information is moving faster now, than it’s ever moved in history, and rules and regulations are changing on a sometimes-daily basis.

And many people on the street simply don’t have a way to stay tuned in to all of that.

“People can't call 2-1-1 for resources. They're getting third-hand rumors about coronavirus. They can't look up a list of symptoms or how to get tested. They've never seen a chart explaining what flattening the curve means. They can't read up on why this disease is different from the flu. They didn't see the CDC's advice to wear face coverings,” Andy explains.

And with libraries, café’s and community centers closed, there are few places for homeless individuals to charge their devices or get on computers to access the web — leaving that population almost totally out of the loop.

Of course, it’s also just scary being homeless at a time like this. Some people are afraid to access shelters or other homeless resources because they don’t want to risk getting sick. But without anywhere to go, or anyone to lean on, many of them feel totally helpless.  

Still, despite all this, Andy is trying to keep his head up. His situation may be a challenging one, and it’s certainly frightening for him and others like him. But he knows the power of a positive mindset, and he’s working hard to keep his spirits high.

“Staying positive is what's getting me through this,” He says. “I do believe I will get better, and I will work my hardest until it happens or I'm proven wrong.”


Many of the quotes in this article are taken from conversation and an AMA with the same homeless Portland resident, who asked to remain anonymous. He gave the author permission to be quoted directly.