Homelessness, Bathrooms, and COVID

A sink, where people need to go to wash their hands after using the bathroom.

TMI time. Or, for those who aren’t into texting: time to give a little too much information (but there’s a point to it…I promise).

A couple of weekends ago, I was heading home from a small gathering of people rooting for my favorite soccer/football team, Norwich City. It was a good time, but there was one problem: I needed a bathroom. However, I couldn’t find one (at least not without getting full table service at a restaurant, which I really didn’t want to do) because many of the places I relied on in the past for public bathrooms wherever I was were closed due to what they call “COVID precautions.” And even places that you think would have an open restroom for customers, such as a Dunkin Donuts with a sign on its door saying that the restroom is available for customers (which I was, because goodness me, I wanted to use a bathroom even if it required getting one or two donuts), were closed due to “COVID precautions.”

However, I had a home where I could eventually use a bathroom and relieve my discomfort. It was an unpleasant and at times uncomfortable ride home, but I had a home to go to where I could use a bathroom.

But some people, unlike me, do not have homes to go to and therefore struggle to find bathrooms because of all the typically public restrooms or customer-only restrooms closed due to “COVID precautions.” And because of that, because of said “precautions,” we are, in many cases, creating potential sanitary issues, not to mention issues of basic human dignity.

Speaking from experience, at the height of the pandemic in New York City, all bathrooms owned by the city’s Parks Department and all bathrooms in libraries were closed.[1] This is a real problem because, as I’ve found myself learning more about homelessness during the pandemic, it is these library and Parks Department bathrooms (along with other public restrooms) that many individuals experiencing homelessness would rely upon to use a bathroom and wash their hands. Without those bathrooms, what does someone do to use the bathroom and wash their hands?

The fact that we’re asking these questions, in New York and in many other places,[2] is troubling under any circumstances, but even more so in the middle of a deadly global pandemic. It’s troubling under any circumstances because the ability to use a bathroom and wash one’s hands has become more of a luxury of having a home and money during the pandemic, when in reality it’s a human necessity and something that is really needed to uphold the dignity of a human being. It’s especially troubling because without the ability to wash one’s hands, gone is also the ability to wash away one’s germs—the last thing we need during a global pandemic. In a way, by taking away access to public restrooms, we might end up increasing the risk of COVID among our most vulnerable.

So why have many bathrooms closed, even though for the homeless the availability of bathrooms is an important COVID precaution?

The sense I get (though I could be wrong) is that it is related to some sort of fear of those cleaning the restrooms catching COVID. I can understand why some people may have that fear. However, I think the fact that COVID cases have stayed low in my home city (New York), even as more restrooms are opening up in restaurants and other places (albeit not as many as there should, especially for the homeless), is a sign that you can have open restrooms, clean them, and keep the spread of the virus slow, all at the same time.

What I propose, then, is that more places with public restrooms open their restrooms, but take the appropriate precautions in keeping the restrooms clean and the cleaning employees COVID-free. As New York’s low COVID case count during the summer shows (we’ll see what the fall brings), it is possible to have open bathrooms and a low level of COVID cases. So, let’s have bathrooms available for people experiencing homelessness. Let’s push for our elected officials to do this. After all, using a restroom and washing one’s hands at any time, but especially during a global pandemic, should not be a luxury, but a human right, a public health issue, and a matter of human decency.

[1] All libraries were closed for a time during the pandemic. And, as of the time I am writing this, most libraries are still closed in New York City.

[2] I hate to say “do a Google search.” But really, please do. The situation has gotten so bad in many places that the Los Angeles Times has a story on strategies for peeing while out (which I can’t read in full because of their paywall). Pew Charitable Trusts was talking about issues with bathroom access in Seattle. And so on…

Barriers to Evacuating From a Weather Disaster

Before every hurricane, we hear elected officials to tell people to “get out of harm’s way.” They say that “if you don’t leave, you are putting your own life at risk.” Or even more dire—I’ve heard elected officials say that “death is certain” if you don’t evacuate. People in parts of Louisiana and Texas heard all of this as Hurricane Laura was approaching last week.

Now don’t get me wrong—I appreciate the strong language. I think that when a major hurricane is heading straight at you, particularly if you’re in an area vulnerable to storm surge from the hurricane, you need to evacuate, if at all possible.

However, I beg people, including any government officials, to take notice of that final clause in my previous sentence: if at all possible.

I say that because, for some people, evacuating is not possible. And the results of this are catastrophic, even deadly.

But how could this be the case, when governments like to give a face of taking these storms seriously? Well…here are just a few major barriers to evacuating from a weather disaster:

Not enough shelters are pet-friendly.

A Reuters article some time ago put it best—pet owners often think of their pets first when natural disasters strike.[1] Now some of that is because people are that emotionally attached to their pets (and that is valid), but we also have to keep in mind that, in some cases, people literally can’t function without their pets. From people who rely on animals as a form of therapy for physical and/or mental health issues, to blind individuals who rely on guide dogs to get them around, there is a whole population of people who can’t function without their pets. Therefore, it is unacceptable for governments to either be short on shelters (as was the case with Florida before Hurricane Irma in 2017, according to the aforementioned Reuters article) or lack pet-friendly shelters in the first place (as was the case with South Carolina with Hurricane Florence a few years ago[2]). If governments want people to evacuate, they need to have evacuation shelters that allow people to be with their pets, for both people who are attached to their pets and for people who can’t function without pets.

Governments also do not provide adequate transportation for people with disabilities.

I was only eleven years old when Hurricane Katrina hit, but one of the things I remember from Katrina was how the City of New Orleans and the State of Louisiana did not adequately provide transportation for the disabled to get to a safe place. Depending on the disability, one may not be able to get to higher ground on their own; therefore, there needs to be help. With Hurricane Katrina, government didn’t help adequately, and the death toll was probably much higher than it should’ve been because of that lack of help.

I will end this section with a quote from a report issued by the National Council on Disability in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005: “For example, during the Katrina evacuation, many people with disabilities could not evacuate because to do so would require them to abandon support services and personnel. Moreover, since emergency transportation and shelters could not care for them, many people with disabilities were forced to stay behind.”[3]

Employee rights are inadequate.

How inadequate are employee rights? So inadequate that people can, and have, been fired because of evacuating from hurricanes. For example, a woman in North Carolina claimed that she was fired for not showing up to work after losing power during Hurricane Florence in 2018—that’s very possible because North Carolina is what’s called an “at-will employment state,” or a state where “private-sector employees can be fired for any reason – or no reason at all.”[4] There were also stories galore before, during, and after Hurricane Irma asking whether an employee can be fired for fleeing from the hurricane (by the way, the consensus answer was “yes”). Until governments have better protections keeping people from being fired for not showing up to work during or immediately after a hurricane as part of an evacuation plan, people will hesitate to evacuate for fear of missing work and being fired.

When a disaster such as a hurricane is on the way, the barriers to evacuating should be minimized to the greatest extent possible. However, that does not happen, and that likely results in preventable deaths.

Please note that I will not publish a post next Monday, as next Monday is Labor Day.

[1] This article talked about how, even for those who need companion animals, pet-friendly shelters were difficult to find: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-elderly-evacuation-pets/florida-needs-more-pet-friendly-hurricane-shelters-for-the-elderly-idUSKBN1CM2Q4

[2] https://weather.com/safety/hurricane/news/2018-09-11-where-to-take-pets-south-carolina-shelters

[3] https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED496270.pdf

[4] https://www.nbc26.com/news/national/employers-can-fire-employees-who-evacuated-for-hurricane-in-north-carolina

The Real Issue Exposed by the Unemployment Benefits Debate in the United States

There’ve been some studies suggesting that many Americans that were on unemployment benefits with the old amount (which included the $600 a week enhanced unemployment benefits)—maybe even close to 70% of Americans on unemployment benefits—were receiving more money from their benefits than from the jobs they used to hold.[1] That seems to be why the matter of unemployment benefits became such a contentious debate.

Those advocating for less generous unemployment benefits during COVID believed that the issue was with the benefits being way too large, to the point of potentially dissuading some from seeking work. I’d argue, though, that the issue is misdiagnosed—the issue is that so many employers are so outrageously cheap that the bar for “generosity” has been set so low.

Consider the fact that an American on unemployment benefits was receiving, on average, $921 a week.[2] That amounts to $47,892 if you extend that for an entire 52-week year—an amount still low enough that it would not cross the threshold to a living wage for a family of three in even the most affordable states in America.[3] In other words, individuals were (on average) receiving less than the equivalent of a living wage, and that was still more generous than what most Americans on unemployment benefits were receiving from their previous employers. Considering that fact, the issue is that most employers of these former employees did not think their employees were worth enough to pay them a living wage, so that employees can easily afford rent, groceries, utilities, and many other basic items. Full stop.

The systemic issues that have led to such low wages for so many Americans may take years, if not decades, to address (if they get addressed). In the interim though, we should stop saying that unemployment benefits were “too generous”—instead, many former employers were not generous enough.

[1] https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/many-americans-are-getting-more-money-from-unemployment-than-they-were-from-their-jobs/

[2] https://www.cnbc.com/2020/07/30/the-600-unemployment-boost-is-almost-over-for-some-their-aid-will-fall-93-percent.html

[3] https://www.cnbc.com/2019/03/04/map-shows-what-a-living-wage-would-be-in-every-us-state.html

Funding for Colleges that Promote Economic Mobility: An Economic Justice Issue

An image of Baruch College-City University of New York. It’s one of the best colleges for economic mobility in the United States. It’s also underfunded. Eden, Janine and Jim from New York City / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

As a son of a professor in the City University of New York (CUNY) system, I have heard tales of all ends of the economic spectrum. It’s a system that has an extraordinarily high percentage of its students in some form of economic struggle—it was reported earlier last year that 49% of students went hungry at some point within that month, while 55% of students lacked a safe place to live during the previous year.[1] Yet, in spite of these extraordinary obstacles that so many students in the CUNY system face, CUNY schools dominate economic mobility lists for colleges.[2]

Systems like CUNY in New York or the University of California (UC) system in California, systems that are engines of economic mobility towards the middle class and even the top 20%, should be supported generously because they lift people out of poverty…and yet they’re not.

I’ve heard this happen in New York. The State of New York, which is supposed to provide the bulk of the money for CUNY funding, has been chronically underfunding CUNY for decades. Under New York’s current governor, Andrew Cuomo (a Democrat), CUNY underfunding has become so bad that colleges like my dad’s have had to make sacrifices such as going without a registrar, cutting class offerings even as the student population grows, raising tuition, and endangering students’ abilities to graduate within four years.[3]

I’ve also read about budget cuts in the University of California (UC) and California State University (Cal State) systems out west. Funding per student in the UC and Cal State systems (systems that are also proven engines of upward economic mobility) have dropped significantly in the past forty years, under both Republican and Democratic governors.[4] And, like in New York, I haven’t heard anything to indicate that the situation is getting any better for public higher education in California.

If anything, the situation is getting worse due to funding cuts during the coronavirus. California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed 10% cuts to the UC and Cal State systems last month,[5] while CUNY is anticipating having to cut thousands of classes and thousands of adjunct and part-time professors.[6]

CUNY, the UC system, and the Cal State system are not the only public university systems being deprived of funding, but these are three notable examples of universities being underfunded in spite of being engines of upward economic mobility.[7] New York and California are not the only places whose leadership has underfunded higher education that promotes economic mobility, but those two states are particularly notable because they have the ability to fully fund or underfund education systems that drive upward economic mobility, which is needed at all times, but even more so during a post-COVID economic recovery.

Underfunding of the CUNYs, UCs, and Cal States of the higher education world must become a prominent economic justice issue. Undermining systems that give students the opportunity to climb out of food and housing stress, and towards a life of economic stability, is economically unjust, not to mention an action that prevents people from seeing the “American Dream” (whatever is left of it) become a reality. It needs to be considered so unjust that it becomes politically dangerous for a politician, Republican or Democrat, to underfund institutions like the ones I’ve mentioned in this piece.

Look at the extent to which the CUNYs, UCs, and Cal States of the world already help people move from food and housing stress and towards the middle and upper class, even with chronic underfunding. It’s truly amazing to think what these institutions, and the students within these institutions, are capable of if they were all funded properly.

If you live in a state that has proposed cuts to higher education, and you’re unsure of whether your legislator is advocating against such cuts, it’s worth giving your state representatives a call.

[1] https://abc7ny.com/education/report-half-of-cuny-students-experienced-hunger-housing-issues/5220690/

[2] What this means is that CUNY lifts a lot of people from the lower class to the middle class: https://www1.cuny.edu/mu/forum/2018/08/20/cuny-again-dominates-chronicles-public-college-social-mobility-rankings/

[3] When it takes more than four years for someone to graduate, that can endanger the state of a student’s financial aid (and drastically increase how much it costs to complete college). For example, the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) in New York only goes for four years; if you need a fifth year, then you have no TAP, and the cost of a college education becomes more expensive: https://www.hesc.ny.gov/partner-access/financial-aid-professionals/tap-and-scholarship-resources/tap-coach/95-second-degree.html#:~:text=According%20to%20New%20York%20State,an%20approved%20five%2Dyear%20program.

[4] https://www.ppic.org/publication/higher-education-funding-in-california/ (Note: I don’t know if these measures account for inflation or not; if they don’t, then the decline in funding is even steeper than this piece advertises.)

[5] https://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/capitol-alert/article242741996.html

[6] https://www.psc-cuny.org/SaveLivesJobsCUNY

[7] Or, if you’re really cynical, you might even be led to believe that these institutions are being punished because of how they produce so much economic mobility.

Poor Women, Wealthy Men, and the New School Sexual Assault Regulations

Because of the media’s focus on the coronavirus, one story that has gone somewhat (but not completely) under the radar is the changes that United States Education Secretary Betsy DeVos put into place for regulations that replaced Obama-era guidelines on how sexual assault accusations are dealt with at schools.

According to National Public Radio, which did a rather thorough piece on these changes, “Among the most significant changes are new regulations aimed at beefing up protections for accused college students, by mandating live hearings by adjudicators who are neither the Title IX coordinator nor the investigator, and real-time cross examination of each student by the other student’s lawyer or representative.”[1] I want to zero in on the change I quoted here, because this is a regulation that will likely end up harming poor women the most and helping wealthy men the most.

In making this argument, it’s worth saying that the real-time cross examination is something that advocates worry will open up wounds for survivors of the assaults under investigation. While yes, there are absolutely male survivors of sexual assault, as well as survivors who do not fall within the male-female gender binary,[2] this is a change that disproportionately hurts women in general, as women of school age are much more likely to be survivors of sexual violence than men of school age.[3] Therefore, when we’re talking about cross examination opening up wounds for survivors, we are most of the time talking about opening up wounds for female survivors of sexual assault. This change will harm women in general.

However, this change will harm poor women the most. This real-time cross examination by the other student’s lawyer or representative, in effect, results in a double whammy for poor people who are survivors: emotional wounds opened up by cross examination by the defendant, and then an inability to spend the money to hire a good lawyer or representative to answer in any effective way to the cross examination. As most survivors are women, this double whammy for poor people who are survivors will predominantly affect poor women. I just hope that there are lawyers/representatives out there willing to potentially do some pro bono work here because otherwise, I don’t see how poor women who are survivors stand much of a shot at getting justice in sexual assault cases under the DeVos guidelines.

On the other hand, these new regulations will likely end up helping wealthy men because: a) most perpetrators are men and b) the male perpetrators who come from wealthy families will be able to spend on the best lawyer/representative money can buy in order to fend off any accusations. Unless the survivor comes from a situation of economic wealth and can have the ability to hire good lawyers, the side of the wealthy male perpetrator is well positioned to win the legal case.

As to the results of these DeVos changes, I do tend to agree with advocates that this will likely have a chilling effect on reporting in general. However, I fear it will have a particularly chilling effect on reporting from poor women survivors of sexual assault. While some people may take pride in being right on something, this is a case where I really hope I am wrong.

Please note that because of Memorial Day, I will not publish a post next Monday.

[1] https://www.npr.org/2020/05/06/851733630/federal-rules-give-more-protection-to-students-accused-of-sexual-assault

[2] And if you’re a male survivor of assault or a survivor who doesn’t fit within the male-female gender binary, your story is no less valid because you are not a woman.

[3] https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence