Opinion

Homeless, Hungry Face Unprecedented Challenges During COVID-19 Pandemic

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic reverberates far beyond America’s hospitals — with profound consequences for both our overall health and economy. None more so than for the most vulnerable among us.

Thousands have died, hundreds of thousands are sick, and millions more have lost their jobs. More uncertainty lies ahead as our country navigates an unprecedented challenge.

We need the combined leadership, expertise and generosity of our entire nation like never before to ensure that people get the care they need and no one suffers in the shadows.  

Make no mistake, though, millions will fall through the cracks without substantial, immediate and sustained support for the organizations at the frontlines of our safety net.

COVID-19 puts even more pressure on these thinly stretched organizations that serve vulnerable people. Hunger relief organizations and those serving people experiencing homelessness have only just begun to grapple with the surge of clients to come. At the same time, the donations they depend on have evaporated in the upheaval, and their volunteers have been told to stay away.

According to a March survey of Feeding America’s network members: 

— Demand for food assistance has increased an average of 37 percent;

— Forty percent report having an immediate critical funding shortfall;

— Sixty-four percent have already dipped into their reserves.

Meanwhile, approximately 300 of 1,100 programs eligible for the Meals on Wheels emergency grant program have already applied for assistance. Additionally, the rapid spread of COVID-19 means more homeless people are at significant risk of infection and unmet medical needs during this critical period in our nation’s history.

These are complex problems — and they require an urgent, multilayered response.

To ensure critical aid is deployed quickly and effectively to those most in need, our organizations partnered with the United Health Foundation to launch a $5 million effort to address COVID-19-related impacts of food insecurity and homelessness. 

The $5 million United Health Foundation pledge is part of UnitedHealth Group’s broader response to address the COVID-19 emergency. It will help us prevent the mental and physical harm that come from hunger and mitigate barriers — barriers that often lead to premature death — that people experiencing homelessness often face.

Through no fault of their own, many of our friends and neighbors, and millions more like them, have lost jobs, paychecks and financial stability they once had. For others who were already vulnerable, including those with disabilities, older Americans, and those experiencing poverty, COVID-19 exacerbates the challenges they already face. Social distancing, the most effective strategy to slow the outbreak, has made help far more difficult to get.

We must come together, each of us bringing our unique strengths and areas of expertise to the problems. Working together, the United Health Foundation, the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, Feeding America and Meals on Wheels America are doing our part. 

We can’t do it alone. More attention, resources and groundbreaking cross-sector partnerships are needed.

These unprecedented times require an equally unprecedented response. We thank those who are responding and urge all those who have the ability to contribute to the effort to combat COVID-19 to do so.  

 

Heather Cianfrocco is CEO of UnitedHealthcare Community & State.

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