Experiences of People in Poverty during Covid-19

Photo above: Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash

This article was originally published 28 April 2020 on the ATD Fourth World-USA site here.

By: Naomi Norberg, ATD Fourth World Ally 

Stay in, stay away, wash your hands . . . As shelter-at-home orders have swept the nation, we’ve all heard about the importance of social distancing and washing our hands to prevent Covid-19 from spreading. But following social distancing rules can pose extra challenges for people experiencing poverty. Many have no safe place to shelter, others live in crowded conditions where they cannot maintain a safe distance, still others live without electricity or running water because of lack of infrastructure. Earlier feelings of social isolation have increased as the virus and the measures to combat it have imposed not only restrictions, but also solutions that are beyond the reach of many people living in poverty.

Many of the “solutions” to being stuck at home in a mobile, digital world rely on private transportation and internet or telephone service: order online or place a call and you can pick up your groceries or have them delivered; drive through and you can get tested for Covid-19. But what if you have no car? Can’t afford the minimum purchase to have groceries delivered or shop with SNAP (food assistance), which can’t be used for orders? What if you don’t have internet? Some may think that people living in poverty are not following the rules, but they face a real dilemma: without private transportation, running water, or electricity they rely on public transportation, laundromats, and businesses with public Wi-Fi not only for the services those businesses provide, but also simply to charge their cell phones. Using these services puts them at greater risk of becoming infected and infecting their families, but without them, they may not be able to get to work or the grocery store, stay informed and in touch with their networks, request a stimulus check, or call a doctor.

Cramped living quarters enable the virus to spread quickly and easily through a community, and health problems so often exacerbated by poverty and systemic inequality mean that people living in these communities are at greater risk of suffering a severe form of the virus if infected. People experiencing street homelessness, couch surfing, or staying in shelters are also at increased risk of infection because they cannot necessarily maintain a safe distance from others or control who comes into their space.

As millions lose their jobs and turn to food banks, the limited resources that the poorest families previously relied on are being depleted. In rural areas, empty shelves in stores they could previously afford means traveling farther, with no guarantee they’ll be able to get what they need. One grandfather living on a reservation in New Mexico said that his local store ran out of main products before he could get there, and the next closest store is at least an hour’s drive away. Fortunately, he can get lunch for his two grandchildren at their school.

Stay-at-home orders are also making it difficult for allies to provide support to people in poverty. An ATD Fourth World team member in Gallup, New Mexico, says she is careful to send text messages rather than calling individuals who do not have electricity because messages use less battery. In New York, another team member expressed difficulty staying in contact with people and helping them deal with their frustration and isolation. Some people experiencing poverty feel like their ongoing efforts are futile. Some were trying to get further education, others had finally found housing, but with all schools closed and millions losing their jobs, goals are once again on hold and gains may be lost. Some are crushed by confinement: it increases the isolation they already suffered and makes them distrust the measures being taken to stop the pandemic.

There is resiliency, however. As one person in Oregon put it:

I think a lot of us marginalized folks – who have legitimate and serious fears around the pandemic right now ‘cause we’re disabled/have pre-existing conditions, are houseless, or in unsafe housing situations as low-income renters – are also a little more familiar with this experience of living under constant threat and uncertainty. And so our apocalyptic muscles are stronger maybe, like mentally or spiritually or communally – we know how to reach out, create networks from the ground up, and be crafty and savvy with the resources we have or scrounge together.

For example, a person struggling to overcome poverty in New York heard about a family who had no food or money left and, though he had nothing to spare himself, said that when he did have something he would share with that family. On another day, even though he had no more food and would normally buy his weekly $33 transit pass to use transportation to get to a store that hadn’t been totally emptied, he stayed home because he knew that transportation was supposed to become free the next day. It did, and he was able to travel for free and buy food with the $33 he’d saved.

A grandmother in Gallup, New Mexico who is raising two grandchildren on her own is intent on keeping up with their schoolwork, despite the lack of a computer. She maintains contact with her grandchildren’s teachers via cell phone, but can’t download the files the teacher sends. Turning to a local ATD Fourth World team member for help, she asked for a math book to maintain one granddaughter’s particularly good math skills.

And a man who had just been given a private room at a shelter after he’d had roommate problems agreed to again share his room so the shelter could take in more people, even though he knew this would increase his chances of infection. These survival and solidarity efforts come from the experience of using them daily, but the added stress is taking an additional mental toll on many.

Knowing how to reach out and help each other is vital for all of us, including for people who know how to survive life’s hardships outside of this crisis. People with a lived experience of poverty may be able to show us not just how to survive under lockdown conditions, but how to do so with dignity and compassion.

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