COVID – a health crisis and a home crisis

Home is the front line for the COVID-19 crisis unfolding in our nation. For many, we are finishing projects we’ve been meaning to tackle and spending time with family members who are usually too busy to sit for dinner at the table. How you spend time sheltering-in-place says a lot about the world you live in. Normally, our differences are masked. It’s hard to tell who gets free lunches at school and who doesn’t, who needs the library’s free internet access to complete homework and whose home has the fastest broadband.

The pandemic lays out the differences in “home” starkly.

We live in a state where the very people working on keeping us safely in our homes are having trouble living in theirs. These are the grocery store workers, or the janitorial staff, or the cooks in our favorite restaurants. They are single moms and their kids. They are our teachers, our firefighters and our police officers. They are the seniors at our church who help in Sunday School. They are our neighbors. They are our fellow Texans who work hard but whose wages just can’t keep up with the price of living within their communities.

For more than 9 million Texans, home doesn’t mean safety and comfort. Rather, home is overcrowded. It lacks plumbing, or bathrooms and kitchens, or it is so expensive that other needs like food and healthcare go without.

As we learn that “social distancing” really means physical distancing, overcrowded homes are often a sign that a community doesn’t have enough affordable housing. Multiple families share homes meant for one couple. But children suffer most in this environment, especially as quarantines and online classrooms go into effect across Texas. Children, especially young ones, suffer more health problems and lag behind their peers in education. Now, there is no relief and no respite.

Then, in this time of rigid handwashing, some of those 9 million Texas neighbors live in homes that lack kitchens, bathrooms or plumbing. Of course, this is unacceptable, but especially today, technology-oriented education makes broadband is a necessity, too. On April 1, 2020, the Texas Tribune reported “around one Texas household in three [is]without a connection to the communications network that makes it possible to work from home… We’re 38th among the 50 states in broadband adoption.” What is home when the basics of good health and education are denied?

For these families, economic insecurity or poor living conditions push people further and further behind. School campuses offered a safe area and minimized the conditions, since there could be at least one hot meal a day and internet access for homework.

This doesn’t just impact those in poverty. The challenges of home reach all economic levels. More than one out of every four Texans pay too much for their home, leaving less income for other basic necessities, including utilities, food and education.

Seniors are often the hardest hit when their work and bodies slow, making home repair harder and the costs of a home outstrip income. Not being able to afford your home is the most common housing problem for our seniors. When the cost of home outstrips the ability to pay, seniors and families must make hard choices on paying for food and medicine. For many, home isn’t a place of refuge from the storms outside. It is a place of hunger and want.

The COVID crisis is a health crisis, but it is also a crisis of home, and communities across Texas play an important role in the solution, too. Texas Lyceum poll says a whopping 68% of Texans believe Texas state government should be doing more to increase the availability of affordable housing. Respondents know that a home’s affordability and safety are the most important features of home. 87% of Texans believe that investment in homeownership is important, while more than half of Texans believe it is difficult to find an affordable home in their area.

As shelter-in-place orders go into effect across Texas, many are looking forward to spending more time at home. By the end, no doubt we will all be ready to greet one another in shops and restaurants and city parks around the state, but as you do so, remember those whose home is not a place of safety from the uncertainties outside. Remember those who work in grocery stores, restaurants and city parks, and work for them now, as they work for you. Speak up for them today by calling your elected officials and telling them that we must protect people’s access to safe, and decent homes. Volunteer and donate to organizations like Habitat which offer a hand up. Pause for a moment to remember that from home we build community. And hope.

Buda resident Amy Parham is executive director of Habitat Texas.

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