Perspectives on Homelessness: With and Without the COVID-19 Pandemic

Raghav Goyal '22
Raghav Goyal ’22

Written by Raghav Goyal ’22 and Ronni Pearlman

Raghav Goyal ’22 is an Albert Schweitzer Fellow for Life who first conducted a project involving Burlington’s homeless community during his second year of medical school. He shares his perspective on life in the homeless community, as well as an interview with Ronni Pearlman, a community member with a lived experience of homelessness who volunteers for several organizations in Burlington.

My understanding of homelessness has built over the last three years here in Burlington, Vt., and has revealed, for me, some basic truths: Homelessness is a transient condition that many people go in and out of; not everyone has mental health or substance abuse issues; and the people in the homeless community are unbelievably diverse in age, nationality, race, political bent, and education, with stories you would never anticipate.

For some, homelessness is a sort of choice, if it can be called that. One option involves successive dead-end jobs with limited mobility that afford the privilege of living paycheck to paycheck; another affords some degree of seclusion and isolation, and a freedom to dictate work hours and relationship styles. For those whose lives have long operated on the margins, and have friends and families in those marginal spaces, it is unclear how life could be different.

Regardless, I am wary of over generalizing, because again, “homelessness” is a passing condition that many kinds of people filter through.

COVID-19 has and will continue to bring social forms and structures into sharp perspective: Who is comfortable and who is vulnerable, what do we take for granted, and what kinds of emotions and conditions allow us to make radical social change? Why is it easy to provide basic incomes and reduce consumption for a virus, but impossible to mobilize such radical change to address climate change or poverty or violent apartheids of innocent people? Here, locally, I have been especially interested in how COVID-19 has affected friends in the homeless community.

Specifically, I am interested in a tension – a tension between two concepts. One is “radical care” – a term recently coined in a Duke University article – and something I would call “disaster care.” The former term refers to the power of groups of people to build horizontal, nurturing relationships that allow them to thrive in difficult circumstances despite (and maybe because of?) an absence of structural safety nets. The latter term refers to the kind of empathy generation that occurs when people feel vulnerable in times of disaster, a kind of empathy that allows them to temporarily humanize and feel connected to others, whom they realize are not so different from themselves: the homeless, the dark, the foreign, the far.

I am interested in interrogating the tension between these two concepts. In my experience, radical care describes many relationships I have witnessed in the homeless community here in Burlington. A community of people that share limited resources, actively include new people into the fold, and look out for each other’s wellbeing. But I am also cognizant that there is a large social support network here in Burlington with many players that work to actively ensure that excess resources from economically-sufficient individuals find their way into the hands of those who might benefit. Moreover, during COVID-19, I am aware that there is a growth of this sort of disaster care, and I have participated in this exchange system through a GoFundMe campaign.

For obvious reasons, it is hard to physically gain a deep sense of how these two forms of care are playing out in the community right now. That said, the ramifications and consequences will be there for all of us to unpackage together in the coming months, and I look forward to being a part of the conversation.

In the meantime, I asked a close friend of mine in the community, Ronni Pearlman, to provide her perspectives on how COVID-19 is affecting different forms of care in the homeless community right now. I must note that I pose her perspective not to tokenize her or to position her as a native informant, but simply as someone whose opinions and insights I value tremendously. They are her own and are useful as a part of intentional work to seek understanding of people who are different from me.

Ronni Pearlman
Ronni Pearlman

RG: How is this weird moment changing how individuals in the homeless community relate to each other right now?

RP: As I kind of see it, there are two groups of people right now. There are those that are worried about it and those that aren’t. There are those who think they have nothing to live for anyway, so won’t cover [their] face. And there are those who think it’s all a scam, so they won’t cover their faces. And then there’s everyone else who’s more… medically savvy… and that creates a real tension – it’s divided people. You know, we rely on this safety in numbers thing, but now it’s safer to be apart.

Homeless life is always chaotic, but there’s some sense of stability. Now, there’s no stability and total chaos. Food is scattered and all the usual systems are gone… You know our social relationships are not as various as someone who’s housed, it’s this street family we’ve built and we’re being pulled in a lot of directions right now.

RG: I’ve noticed that a lot of people are getting housed. Is that true?

RP: Lots of people are living with friends, or anyone who calls 211 can get a hotel room. That’s creating a whole new environment, because people are staying in the hotels and I’m worried that it’ll become a breeding ground like nursing homes there. But we’re adjusting to this new normal.

RG: Are people in tents right now?

RP: Most people are going inside because it’s harder to reach resources from a tent than from inside right now, because we depend on communicating with each other. We have to self-isolate, but we also need to be close enough to understand where resources are, that’s where the hotels are, good and bad.

 This whole thing has disrupted how we relate to each other. When I have perishables, I’ll invite people over who are more virus-free over others. I won’t invite over people from [location omitted], because I’m looking at each person with a sense of “how much risk do they have?” It’s disrupted how we see doctors, even how we take showers, because there’s no COTS. Things are changing.

RG: It sounds like although things are hard for someone who in the homeless community, there was a rhythm of how to get by, but now that rhythm is totally messed up. Is that right?

 RP: Yeah, we’re getting food donations from NEW people, but we’re losing other resources, like the Salvation Army has no people in the dining rooms. Buell Street Saturday is not in operation. Our chance to interact at the food shelf is completely gone. The people who deliver, they have a little bit of interaction, but now it’s 6 feet, we’ll drop it at your door with masks and gloves and leave from there. It’s interrupted our social relations.

 We feel invisible as it is, but this is definitely a new level.

RG: You mentioned perishables. Can you talk a bit about how donations have changed in light of the COVID-19 crisis? Is there more food or less?

RP: It’s that sense, like after 9-11, we’re all in this together. They’re helping us with perishable food, which is new, because it helps build up our immune system, but some people can’t get those things, because there’s nowhere to store them. If I have those things, I’ll prepare ‘em as best as I can, and then like I said, figure out who I can share it with before it goes bad.

 It’s really changed the kind of donations, in addition to the amount. Someone yesterday said it’s like a poor man’s feast – we’re being given food that would be on a wish list, like name brands that we don’t buy for ourselves. Most people on food stamps don’t buy lots of fruits and vegetables. In the donations that I’ve gotten there’s been stuff like asparagus, pineapple chunks, a tray of cut up strawberries and blueberries…It’s amazing stuff, but it’s not something I’d normally buy for myself.

When I have too much, it’s like trading baseball cards; I figure out who needs the stuff I don’t need. Like my friend’s neighbor is disabled and she seems to be missing out on donations. I gave her some of my stuff the other day.

RG: You’ve mentioned this to me before, about how sometimes being housed can almost make life harder. Is that still true right now?

RP: There’s a lot of people who achieved housing but are housebound. A lot of these folks are not aware of the resources that are available. You know, COTS will say “sorry you’re housed, we’re not gonna feed you,” but you run out of food stamps, and what are you going to do? A lot of folks in houses are separated and not communicating to figure out what’s going on. It’s that same thing as before – we have strong relationships, but being separated has made it harder for us to look out for each other at times.

RG: Can you talk more about how caring for each other is different now because of COVID-19?

RP: It’s easy at times like this to self-isolate. But the people I do contact personally are the ones who’ve gone above and beyond. If I want to cultivate that relationship I made on the street, I’ll call you and video chat you. But this kind of communicating has created a lot of rumors about people who have passed away because we haven’t heard from them. I think when this is over, a lot of people are gonna come back to life, if that makes sense.

 Overall, it’s similar to what happens during the winter. You cultivate the relationships you really need, and the others are people you just see on the street. You still look out for each other, but it depends on the relationship with that person. We can’t survive on our own, but we also have to be clear about who we are going to look out for because it’s cold and it’s hard to get places – it’s like that.

RG: It’s great to talk to you, as always. Do you have any other thoughts?

RP: I’m learning to eat blueberries and I like that, but homelessness is an invisible thing and it’s a bit harder when everyone’s wearing a mask and gloves.

Ronni Pearlman is a community member with lived experience of homelessness and Raghav Goyal is an MS4 student applying into Emergency Medicine. You can find their GoFundMe here: “#Covid19 – Supplies for vulnerably housed” GoFundMe page.

What are your thoughts about this topic?