The Privilege of Sheltering in Place

Stay-at-home orders across the country have implications for our most vulnerable. 

Person bundled in blankets in front of garbage.

By Aliya Brown and Danielle Sered

On March 18th, Mayor Bill De Blasio warned those living in New York City to prepare to 'shelter-in-place' in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Governor Cuomo has actively encouraged all non-essential personnel to work remotely and stay indoors. Restaurants, bars, movie theaters, and more closed their doors to the public across the state and shifted to alternative measures to limit contact while still providing services. Thousands have been laid off while others who are still able to work have continued to show up because they cannot afford otherwise, despite the risk of exposure to COVID-19. Recently, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Councilman Stephen Levin called for protective measures for some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers, our homeless population.

Sheltering-in-place has been feasible for people with the flexibility to work remotely. Sheltering in place has not, however, accounted for our most vulnerable – the homeless, many of whom are formerly incarcerated and/or people who have survived violence. While our approach to COVID-19 has been reactionary, we should be thinking about long-term changes that will support access to safe, decent, affordable housing that will allow sheltering-in-place to be a reality for us all in the face of a pandemic. It is all too likely this is not our last time reckoning with a challenge like this.

Across the country, and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, policy efforts at the intersection of housing and criminal justice have taken center stage from Seattle to Chicago and beyond. In New York City, activists in partnership with Institute for Justice and Opportunity are calling for protected class status for persons living with criminal records through the Fair Chance for Housing campaign, an effort to gain protected class status for persons with arrests and convictions at the local level. These efforts are critical in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, as cities and states across the country issue shelter in place orders.

But there is a perspective that is often missing from these conversations about housing: we must never forget that both formerly incarcerated people and survivors have a joint stake in prevalent access to equitable housing, especially during times of crisis. That is because survivors often suffer from housing instability as a result of the harm they endured because some survivors also have criminal records themselves and so are impacted by exclusions directed at people with such history, and because survivors have a fundamental stake in safety—which housing instability, including—even especially—for people with criminal justice system involvement inherently undermines. When we fail to eliminate barriers to housing under more certain conditions, we cannot possibly succeed at sheltering-in-place in times of crisis. And as this crisis has taught us, all of our safety is dependent on everyone's ability to do just that.

In New York City, many people returning from prison are heading directly to overcrowded shelters, with overall homelessness reaching 80,000 this past year. Due to the enormous and daunting barriers that people with justice involvement face in the search for housing, their stays in a shelter often exceed one year. Our failure to close the housing gap is unacceptable, and we must do better if we are to be a truly just, equitable, and safe society under 'normal' conditions, and during times of crisis. Housing insecurity and an inability to meet one's economic needs are key drivers of violence, and so the exclusion of people with convictions ultimately threatens neighborhood safety and, in so doing, compromises the fundamental interests of survivors. These same survivors themselves benefit from increased access to stable housing and to an accessible housing market. When survivors, people with justice involvement, and returning citizens are housing secure, it leads to increased safety, stability for individuals and families, and the ability to thrive in a neighborhood of one's choosing. And it positions us to take the steps to reduce the spread of viruses in our city.

Securing housing justice for all will require a radical shift in society's understanding, thinking, and reimagining of what people deserve and what we are capable of providing. It will require us to loosen our grasp on outdated beliefs that value exclusion over integration and separation over connection, and cling instead to new approaches that put a person's humanity and inalienable right to housing first. In large, dense cities like New York, it will demand that neighbors be open to learning and that landlords take strong stances in support of equality. Shifts of this magnitude will ultimately ensure that in times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic we are currently enduring, people will have a safe place to shelter-in-place and do their part to flatten the curve.

Aliya Brown is the communications project manager at Common Justice. @Common_Justice

Danielle Sered, executive director of Common Justice, is author of "Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration and the Road to Repair." @daniellesered