The COVID-19 pandemic and its countless implications seem to have transformed every aspect of life for the average American. However, for some of the most vulnerable amongst us, very little — if anything at all — has changed.
Even before the onset of the pandemic and resulting economic crash, more than half-a-million people were experiencing homelessness in the U.S. As businesses continue closing, income inequality climbs to unprecedented heights and millions across the country struggle to make ends meet, the crisis is only worsening.
According to a recent report by researchers at Columbia University, about 8 million people in the U.S. have fallen into poverty since May. Additionally, nearly a million workers were laid off last month, and millions more are on the brink of homelessness.
The national level of homelessness has increased each of the last four years. From 2018–2019, homelessness in America increased about 3 percent. Given the current compounding of crises amid the coronavirus pandemic, the next several years likely will see even larger increases.
“The current COVID-19 crisis has the potential to diminish or completely wipe out our modest gains,” the End Homelessness 2020 report states.
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Every day when I step outside my apartment, it is very clear that both the U.S. and West Virginia are experiencing a not new — though certainly exacerbated — crisis of homelessness and extreme poverty.
Almost always, there is a group of individuals sitting on the ground near the old apartment building in Huntington where I rent a room for the semester. Often, they lack appropriate clothing for the chilling weather. More often, I know they are waiting on the Speedway employee to take out the garbage, hoping there will be leftovers, unsure what will happen if there are none.
The other students who live in this apartment building and I do our best to help out. I almost always have leftover groceries each week, and I know I have more jackets and sweaters and socks and gloves than I need; so, I help. Sometimes helping simply means sitting down and asking if someone is okay, or if they want to have a beer and talk for a while. Almost always, they do.
I’ve never seen any of us who live in the building call the cops on these individuals who tend to hangout just outside the bottom-floor doors, under the shelter of the balconies overhead. I live on the second floor, so the individuals are never directly outside of my door, but I know several of the folks who live below me, and I know that sometimes they have to politely ask the group of individuals to let them around so they can get to their front door. The individuals do not try to get in the way of the tenants, but this conflict seems unavoidable.
Mostly, the individuals in the groups sit around, smoke cigarettes, drink beers, tell stories and laugh — and wait. Other times, they are sleeping, uncovered, on the freezing, rain-drenched concrete. Many do not even wear shoes, because they do not have any.
Like I said, I’ve never seen or heard of any of the tenants calling the cops to “deal with” these individuals, but recently, a student who lives beneath me said he considered doing so.
He doesn’t want to “ruin their lives,” but “what [is he] supposed to do?” One or two or three individuals hanging out is no problem, but when there are so many, they actually block the entrance to his door, he attempts to explain.
A part of myself empathizes with the tenant. The individuals should do their best to avoid blocking anyone’s front door to their apartment. But I also realize the sick game being played on all of us. How lucky we are to be tenants wrestling with poverty ourselves; how unfortunate — how cruel — to be forced into the groups which tell stories and laugh and wait for leftovers beneath our balconies.
I know that we all — the tenants, the individuals, the groups — are what Hemingway called “Have-Nots.” Not in a shameful way, but in a matter-of-fact way. We just don’t have much of anything, at least not materially. The bottom 50% of our country — the wealthiest in the history of the world — own barely more than 1% of the national wealth. Knowing this, I am unable to separate myself from the individuals who live beneath me; We are connected by shared struggles, through class solidarity. I know I always have been and perhaps always will be infinitely closer to sudden homelessness than to extravagant riches. That could be any of us down there, I remind myself. And so it goes…
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A 47-year-old homeless man who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity said that while he has not seen any objective statistics, an ongoing increase in extreme poverty and homelessness — at least locally — already seems apparent.
“I don’t know what’s been going on, but I do know there’s been a whole lot more people hanging out around here than just a few months ago,” the man said, sitting on the cold concrete outside Speedway on Fifth, a location he described as a “hub” for struggling locals. “They don’t normally make us leave from here or nothing as long as we aren’t causing any trouble.”
The man said he does not think any of the locals set out trying to start trouble, but sometimes “trouble,” in the eyes of law enforcement, simply means asking others for help.
“Asking for money when you don’t have any is not causing any trouble,” the man said. “I don’t know what else we’re supposed to do. But when there’s always so many people hanging around here, especially now, like I said, it makes it harder to lay low and not bother anybody.”
Crossing my legs to sit down on the concrete beside the man, our eyes now on a level plane, I wonder if I should say something about the groups and about the doors — about the kid who lives in the apartment below me and the frustrations he has confessed.
As I scribble into my notebook, the man tells me that the struggles of being homeless and extremely poor are endless, making even life’s most basic tasks seem impossible.
“It feels like a trap,” he said. “We don’t have any money. We can’t get a job. We can’t buy food. We can’t pay for anywhere to sleep at night. What are we supposed to do?”
One of the scariest aspects of being homeless, he said, is the constant fear of being harassed or arrested by the police for “trespassing” in an abandoned building or for “panhandling” when he needs money for food.
“Finding a place to sleep for the night ain’t a damn crime either,” the man said. “But it can be really hard around here. Any time we see the police, we just go the other way. They aren’t trying to help us. I’ve been struggling for a while now, and no cop ever helped me find a place to stay.”
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A 36-year-old homeless woman who also frequents the Speedway on Fifth said right now is a particularly trying time to be homeless, but not because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“What pandemic?” said the woman, who chose to be identified as Rose. “You mean the drug epidemic — the pain pills or whatever?”
She said that although she only recently became homeless, she already can tell the autumnal weather changes are going to be devastating for folks with no place to stay.
“The cold is already too much,” Rose said, sparking a cigarette with trembling hands. “I haven’t been able to sleep for three days. It’s too cold.”
Rose said she has not spent very much time thinking about the ongoing global pandemic, mostly because her life circumstances prevent her from taking proper safety precautions.
“I don’t have any masks,” she said. “We just only go places where we know they won’t kick us out. They know we don’t want any trouble, probably just some cigarettes or a beer. A lot of people go through the dumpsters too.”
Rose said she knows the coronavirus pandemic is not a hoax, but it has not had much of an impact on her life, and she thinks it is weird that she still does not known anyone who has been diagnosed with the disease.
“I don’t know anyone who’s had it,” she said. “I’m not sure if any of us has gotten tested. I don’t know if they’d even give us one. But honestly, I don’t think any of us think about all this too much. We were struggling before coronavirus, and we’re still struggling now.”
She said she and most the other homeless people she knows assume they are unable to get tested or to receive treatment because of the likely expenses.
“I haven’t had any health care since I lost my last job,” Rose said. “None of us have any health care. You have to find a decent job, which might as well be impossible.”
Even when a homeless person is lucky enough to find a business seemingly willing to hire them, often this is only the beginning of yet another layer of seemingly insurmountable struggles, Rose said.
“You can’t get a job anywhere if you can’t pass a drug test,” she said. “I graduated college from right here — from Marshall — and I still can’t find anywhere to work. Getting sober is so much harder when you’re poor and don’t have any help.”
Rose said that lying restless upon frosted concrete on November nights in Huntington is almost unbearable, but the gut-wrenching pain that comes with opiate withdrawals may be “even worse.”
“It’s like something’s clawing inside of you,” she said. “I can’t stand the cold, but I don’t know what I’m going to do. What am I supposed to do? I don’t want to freeze, but getting high makes you feel warm. It really does.”
On this night — as on many others — Rose and several other individuals from the group momentarily retreat from the dim lighting of the Speedway lot and into the near sightlessness of the broken brick alley which passes the smaller face of the building where I stay.
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In the absence of the lights, the individuals begin to pass around a small syringe needle filled with something or another. Four of them inject the substance using the same needle; They tell me none of them has another. All the stores are closed, and syringes ain’t so cheap, anyway. I ask if needle distribution has stopped because of the pandemic, and none of us knows the answer. I want, but refrain, to ask how regularly they share a syringe.
The four who shared the needle return it to the young, thin man who initially removed it from one of the several sacks he carries.
As the four individuals, including Rose, walk back to the Speedway lot, half-stumbling and unable to communicate as before, the man who stayed behind takes his turn with the syringe.
I feel both very concerned — I read just this morning that local drug-related HIV cases are rising throughout the pandemic, and our area is a hotspot — and intensely curious. Momentarily, I stand alone in the alley with the man who stayed back. The man, noticing my strange demeanor, uses our privacy to ask if I am an undercover cop. I don’t immediately recognize the tone of his voice.
“If I were a cop, I would have arrested all of us a long time ago,” I tell him, unsure whether his question is serious.
“You’re right,” he replies, showing his teeth for the first time. “Cops don’t ask so many questions like you do, either.”
The two of us laugh briefly together, exhaling visible gusts of warmth into the cold, thin night air.
Two other individuals from the lot walk over, and the three men speak amongst themselves at a volume too low for me to hear. They don’t seem to speak this way intentionally, as if to hide their words; rather, I have noticed this is just how both these two men speak — as if each word is a blade in his stomach, which is held by the arm due to physical anguish.
One of the men removes a small plastic baggy from the pocket of his torn blue jeans. Neither of the men needs a drink to swallow the pill; Then again, none of the three possesses a drink, either. I offer to the men a beer each, and the two who brought the pills accept. The man with the sacks and the syringe does not drink.
A moment passes in brief silence, and, breaking it, I wonder aloud whether any of the three men has an opinion about the upcoming presidential election, or about politics, or perhaps about drug policy in particular — and whether any of this really matters very much at all. Initially, the men with the beers are uneasy in the presence of my question and myself, and before I can react, the man with the sacks tells them I am a writer and that he knows me, and they seem to realize I am only curious, whatever my story.
One of the men says, joking, that the three of them would be out of a job if drugs were legal, and he is quick to reassure me he was only joking, that he would love to “go back” to working a “normal” job, like writing in the newsroom, instead.
The other two men agree that drugs ought to be available legally; “Bad Drugs,” ones sold as substances they are not, such as fentanyl as Xanax, are a “life-or-death” problem around here, and safe injection and distribution sites seem like genuine solutions.
One of them mumbles a joke about the president that I do not hear, and the others laugh loudly. They seem to have no serious opinions about the elections, and I assure them that I understand, or empathize, at least. The man with the sacks says “nothing important” about life ever has changed because of a president or a politician, and the others agree. I nod my head knowingly, forward into the still autumn air which brings only chills in place of changes.
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While some of his peers have not been forced to — or been able to — make significant life adjustments as a result of the ongoing pandemic, 43-year-old Adam Pingle said that in recent months, his life has been turned upside down.
Pingle said he only recently became homeless in Huntington after being laid off from his job working at the City Mission, most likely a result of the pandemic and its implications for municipalities and small businesses.
Pingle said he regrets losing his job not only because of the money lost, but also because the position was one he is very passionate about.
“I had a better job offer for more money, but I wanted to work at the Mission so I could help people,” he said. “The Mission does a lot of good things for a lot of people around here.”
Pingle said it is alarming how quickly his life transitioned from stability to extreme insecurity. He said there are various factors that have led to his current situation, and all of them seemed to happen at once.
“I had a nice house. I was living in a nice neighborhood. Everything was great. I felt like I could do anything,” Pingle said. “Then I got kicked out when life started getting too crazy, and I started having too much bad company around me. Even when I was working, I couldn’t stand people being out on the street with nowhere to go, so I’d let everyone stay at my house all the time.”
Pingle has been more economically unstable and “truly homeless” before, he said, in times of his life when he had nowhere at all to sleep at night, not even in cheap hotel rooms.
“I never thought I’d be back in this situation again,” he said. “There have been times in my life when I’ve been on the streets, truly homeless with nowhere to go. Then I got back on track, worked for everything I had, and life was good. You could sleep good at night and hold your head high and everything like that. But I lost it all so quick, man. I really did.”
Pingle said if he won the lottery, he would use his fortune to reconnect with his children, who currently live a couple hours away with family.
“If I got a million dollars today, I’d go see my kids and take them to do something,” he said.
Although he currently is experiencing one of the tougher phases of his life, Pingle said he always tries to remain optimistic and to adhere to his personal values.
“I’ve always said this, and I honestly do believe it: if you live right and think positive and trust in God, eventually good things will come your way,” he said. “If you live right no matter what — no matter who’s looking or anything — eventually it will come back to you.”
Looking upward toward the night sky from the dimly lit Speedway parking lot below, imagining where life may take him in coming months and years, Pingle said as his modest smile turned to a gently charismatic laugh, “Maybe I could take Trump’s job. Why not?”