Covid-19 and the Homeless Population: from health to public safety?

“Isolate yourself, distance yourself, wash your hands, use gel alcohol, #fiqueemcasa!” are some of the main medical guidelines for combating the coronavirus - Covid-19. There is no doubt about the importance of such recommendations, but it is worth asking: what about those who have no home?

For more than a decade, we have been engaged in research, carrying out extension projects and collaborating with the political organization of the homeless in Porto Alegre. The homeless population covers an increasing number of people in the country and has been the target of national programs and policies for their attention since 2009, since the implementation of the National Policy for Homeless People. The anthropological study with this population has shown that the increase in policies and the greater visibility of these people's bodies and ways of life fail to revert two strong perspectives on the subject: (1) to that guided by the view that the street population must be suppressed by simply removing people from the street; (2) that which implies people on the street as the subjects of the “lack”. In times of the Covid-19 pandemic, the risks associated with such positions imply, on the one hand, the production of compulsory concentration policies carried out from a modus operandi of public security (hierarchizing, segregating and and on the other hand, the withdrawal of the subjects' agency, making the street population the target of actions that accentuate the processes of repression and social exclusion.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a reflection of inequality. A health emergency that makes us think about how historically the least favored are treated. It is not only the emergency that is faced, but the permanence of structural violence in which the ways of implementing state policies are an important agent. Although Covid-19 spreads democratically, mortality rates are not democratic and different populations are subject to greater and lesser risks. Being isolated in the comfort of a home can make a difference between life and death. Having access to health services, medicines and healthy eating are also differentiating elements. Having conditions to access water and body and household hygiene products are other factors in this risk balance, as well as the presence of protective relational bonds. The Covid-19 threat is not just viral. The Covid-19 threat is co-produced by the uneven living conditions of the Brazilian population. If this is true, people living on the streets, due to their living conditions, are very susceptible to the virus.

As exposure is uneven and susceptibilities vary, policies matter. The local experiences of receiving the pandemic show that the structuring of the health system, the investment in scientific policies, the expansion of testing and an efficient apparatus of population management make a difference in the contextual impacts of the pandemic. For populations at greater risk due to their living conditions, policies make a decisive difference between life and death. In the case of the homeless population, the biggest bet against the spread of the virus, the orientation: #fiqueemcasa, has no effect.

As several works in the field of anthropology with public policies insist, it is necessary to go beyond global policies to invest in combat strategies in tune with culture and local living conditions; instead of mere contextual “details”, these elements are at the heart of the possibilities of facing the pandemic. The “Corona Virus Pandemic Contingency Plan (Covid-19) for the Homeless Population of Porto Alegre” was produced by a collective of civil society organizations, public service professionals and representatives of homeless people. On March 26, 2020, this document was delivered to representatives of the Municipal Government and has supported some initiatives only because it was built in dialogue with the street population - meeting their expectations and meeting their living conditions. .

Among the suggested measures, are available public spaces and hygiene materials necessary for bathing and cleaning hands, clothes and utensils; the expansion of reception spaces such as shelters and hostels with the remodeling of their structures in order to allow the necessary social distance to avoid the spread of the virus; investment in housing programs that allow less occupation of shelters and shelters; specialized health care for the homeless, who already have pre-existing diseases that are often neglected by the health system; the testing of the homeless population in relation to Covid-19 and the creation of quarantine spaces for those affected by the virus to remain, as well as protected places for groups at higher risk, such as the elderly, those living with HIV, the sick and pregnant women; the guarantee of food security and a minimum income that makes possible the survival of people who, in many cases, depend on the performance of small autonomous and occasional services, the sale of goods at traffic lights and the collection of charity goods, scarce in times of social isolation.

All of these suggestions go beyond the #fiqueemcasa orientation, at the same time that they emphasize that facing the impact of Covid-19 on the homeless population goes beyond the production of specialized spaces for the segregation of these people in cities. Although important, we need to be aware of the fact that they should not be the only strategy undertaken, as this would only mean greater segregation and social exclusion for this population, at the risk of transforming a public health issue into a public security policy. Homeless people should not be perceived as risks , but as a population at risk with the Covid-19 pandemic. In a very uneven scenario of distribution of susceptibilities, perhaps the pandemic will allow us to rethink the direction of our current policies and ways of life. The absurd construction of a polarization between economy and human lives that naturalizes the sacrifice of certain populations, exposing them to death in the name of the danger of hunger, may be showing that, in the present scenario, there are many other threats to combat, besides the coronavirus - Covid-19.


Patrice Schuch - PhD in Social Anthropology, Professor at the Department of Anthropology and the Graduate Program in Social Anthropology at UFRGS. Together with Professor Ivaldo Gehlen, from the Graduate Program in Public Policies at UFRGS, he coordinated census research in the city of Porto Alegre on homeless people. He also guides several anthropological studies on the street population, having developed research and extension projects carried out with the National Street Population Movement, the Boca de Rua newspaper and the Porto Alegre School

Calvin Da Cas Furtado - Master in Public Policy, currently a doctoral student in the Graduate Program in Social Anthropology at UFRGS. He developed the documentary "Life is Always a Mystery", about street people, and conducts research on violence, public policies and street people. -

Master in Public Policy, currently doctoral student in the Graduate Program in Social Anthropology at UFRGS. He developed the documentary "Life is Always a Mystery", about homeless people, and conducts research on violence, public policies and homeless people.