Exposure: COVID and the long, cold winter of the American homeless

On a frozen winter night in a northeastern state of the United States in February 2020, four people nestled into a tent they had set up in the shrubbery behind an isolated retail building and went to sleep. They never woke up.

Their bodies were found a day or so later when friends who could not get in contact with them began to fear the worst. The gas from a propane heater they had relied on to keep warm in sub-zero temperatures had leaked overnight, creating a deadly blanket of carbon monoxide gas that had suffocated them slowly while they slept.

A few days later, the bodies and the tent had been removed, but the remnants of the homeless camp remained. Chairs were still set up around the ashes of a dug-out firepit. Empty food wrappers and beer cans were scattered to one side. A makeshift shrine had been set up to honour the dead: a rough-hewn wooden cross dug into the earth, strewn with beads and photographs, small bottles of liquor at its base. I did not know the dead intimately, but I had met them a few times at one of the local services for homeless people that I frequented as part of my work as an anthropologist. I visited the site with a friend to pay our respects, and we talked for a while with one of the other mourners who had gathered there. His eyes were bleary from crying and drinking, as he whispered in shock, ‘They were just tryna keep warm’.

A month later, in those precious early days of March 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic had been declared a public emergency, I sat and talked with another of my contacts experiencing long-term homelessness, who I will call John. We were catching up in a day shelter, a service that provides temporary refuge to people experiencing housing insecurity. Open for specific hours of the day, these services combine temporary shelter with access to resources, including hot meals, ‘go’ bags containing transportable packaged food, hygiene items, and casework support.

Although some people came to the day shelter when they were on the precipice of eviction to seek emergency assistance, most of the ‘regulars’ were experiencing what is defined by the US Housing and Urban Development [HUD] agency as ‘chronic homelessness’, which describes the plight of a person who has been without shelter for at least a year, or cyclically over four years. The HUD definition emphasises that people experiencing chronic homelessness often have other debilitating conditions, such as serious mental illness or substance-use disorders. The irony is that most of the housing assistance available in the northeast of the United States excludes those with active dependency disorders, and mandates that those receiving assistance participate in self-sufficiency programs, which people experiencing or recovering from those conditions often struggle to complete. The result is that some of the most vulnerable people in US society are those most likely to be navigating chronic homelessness.

Since most of the regulars attending the day shelter were disqualified for one reason or another from receiving housing assistance, they mostly came for a few hours of respite from the elements, some warm food, and to socialise with other people in situations resembling their own. They were not aiming to resolve their situation, only to survive it.

Although the early-spring air on this day was still bitter with cold, the mood inside the shelter was frenetic as most of us scrambled to discuss the news that had been slowly building over recent weeks: the news of a virus that was spreading worldwide, the coronavirus, or what would eventually become known as COVID-19. John, sitting beside me, ignored the topic until I directly asked him whether he was worried about the virus. At that time, no cases had been reported in our state, yet increasingly it seemed it was only a matter of time. In fact, the first two cases in our state were announced that afternoon.

John chuckled in response to my question, and clandestinely pulled open one side of his black leather jacket and pointed at a small pocket in the lining. There, I saw a small bottle of clear liquor. ‘Why would I worry about getting sick?’, he explained, grinning slyly. ‘I’m already dead.’

I asked John what he meant. His eyes narrowed cynically and with a sweeping movement of his arm he gestured towards himself and the people around the room where we were sitting. ‘Do you think any of us have any real life? Sleeping outside on stoops and sidewalks? Hiding at night? Ain’t no virus gonna kill me more than all that does every single day.’

Many of us have felt the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak most directly in terms of the biopolitical response of our governments. In an attempt to limit the spread of the virus, governments around the world have imposed various limits on public interaction that have disrupted everyday life for many—forcing people to work from home, children to attend virtual learning, and populations that once enjoyed relative freedom of movement to be simultaneously kept in and kept out by geopolitical borders. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, governments and individuals alike have put significant energy into managing one thing: exposure.

But what John’s perspective on the relativity of exposure and the risks he and other unhoused people navigate daily focuses attention not specifically on the biopolitics of pandemic management but rather the more persistent necropolitics of societal organisation. If biopolitics is power that is realised through the organisation of how people live, then necropolitical power is realised through dictating the limits of who gets to live and who dies. As Achille Mbembe writes, necropolitics are those that consider ‘under what practical conditions is the right to kill, to allow to live, or to expose to death exercised’. Exposure to conditions that produce premature death is not evenly distributed, and the chronically homeless are exposed to myriad threats to health and safety, even without a global pandemic. They are trying to avoid life-threatening bacterial infections from wearing unwashed socks and underwear day after day. They are trying to avoid being detected when they sleep in public lest they become the target of assault. They are ‘just tryna keep warm’—or cool—against the elements. That it was a propane heater that took more lives of the unhoused people I knew in 2020 than the rampant COVID-19 virus alerts us to the cruel necropolitics of exposure.

While the biopolitics of the pandemic disrupted and rearranged the lives of people worldwide as governments attempted to mitigate exposure to the virus, those whose lives were already exposed to death simply incorporated this new risk into the layers they already had to manage as part of daily life. The biopolitical management of the pandemic was felt most acutely by those for whom relative security was already assumed. For people like John, however, who exist in the nebulous space of social abandonment in which they are ‘already dead’, COVID-19 was first interpreted as just another layer of insecurity in a life already exposed to so many vectors of risk, not as a force of rupture.

That was until the situation of unsheltered people emerged as a focal point of pandemic management. No longer simply embodying individualised risk, unhoused people themselves came to be seen as significantly at risk of COVID-19 infection and, as a result, a significant potential source of public exposure.

The price of freedom

In the United States, the breathtaking spread of the virus in 2020 paralleled the rising political tensions leading up to the presidential election held that same year. The virus—and the methods introduced to limit exposure, such as social distancing and mask mandates—became heavily politicised; framed in conservative media discourses less in terms of public health risk and more in terms of an assault on American values of freedom. From the beginning, infection-mitigation efforts were delegated to the discretion of local officials, except in cases where soaring infection numbers forced state leaders to declare a ‘state of emergency’. But even when state mask mandates were in place, these were rarely enforced, and by the middle of 2020 in many parts of the United States it felt as if life were continuing as normal, even as hospitals overflowed with COVID-19 patients.

By the autumn of 2020 in the town where I was living, primary and secondary schools resumed face-to-face classes and by the autumn of 2021 even the mask mandate in schools was lifted, with no vaccine requirement for either students or staff in that state, just as the Delta variant swept across the country. While these kinds of COVID-19 mitigation policies varied in restrictiveness from state to state and locality to locality, ultimately it seemed as if there were one overriding strategy for collectively managing exposure to the virus: personal responsibility. The outcome has been catastrophic. As I write, the death toll from COVID-19 in the United States stands at over 850,000 people. Hundreds of thousands more have been debilitated by the virus, with long-term health and economic effects in a country where access to healthcare is exclusionary and expensive. The organising logic of life in the United States is now, as it long has been, ‘live freely, but at your own risk’.

Except that the relative freedoms of personal responsibility during the pandemic were primarily enjoyed by populations whose freedom was already assumed: namely, the mostly white and middle- to upper-income households, many of whom were working in white-collar industries that could transition to work-from-home settings for the protection of employees. The demand to resume a ‘normal’ lifestyle—that is, one revolving around public-facing consumption activities—was most vocally driven by these populations, whose racial and class privileges also worked to shield them from bearing most of the risk of resuming normality in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

For those who have historically had their freedom limited and constrained, the demand for resuming the freedoms of pre-pandemic life meant, conversely, an active threat to their own lives and well-being, since so much of the workforce called upon to do the retail, service, agricultural and logistics work necessary to maintain public consumption is disproportionately made up of people from low-income households, and with immigrant backgrounds, or people of colour more generally. With so much low-income service work re-classified as ‘essential’, many people from these backgrounds had few or no options to quit those jobs with highest exposure to the virus. With unemployment benefits only being available to those furloughed or laid off—even under the CARES Act, a policy introduced by the federal government to bolster unemployment accessibility—most of those whose ‘essential’ work put them into direct contact with the public could not voluntarily leave their job, else they would be ineligible for unemployment benefits and, essentially, living without income. The freedom they had to contend with was the ‘choice’ of whether to expose themselves to a deadly virus to pay the rent, or limit exposure but risk being unable to pay the rent.

While in the United States the collective management of COVID-19 exposure was mostly relegated to personal responsibility to preserve the ‘freedoms’ of the dominant classes, there was another group of people whose experiences were almost the direct inverse. Far from having their freedoms pandered to during the pandemic, people experiencing chronic homelessness ironically found themselves in the position of having their lives become a site of increased intervention, control and containment.

Restrictions and interventions are not new for people in situations of chronic homelessness who primarily sleep unsheltered. ‘Private’ space, their personal lives are carefully navigated within the less noticeable cracks of public space. Restrictions on public behaviour and the constant threat of policing dictate the decisions that unhoused people must make as to where to sleep without disturbance, where to seek water, bathroom and washing facilities, and overall how not to draw undue attention to oneself. When the call to ‘shelter-in-place’ early in the pandemic put the situation of chronic homelessness under the spotlight for state policy-makers, the response was to introduce new forms of homelessness management that sought to prevent exposure, even though the homeless had been managing exposure to other life-threatening insecurities—weather, bacteria, assaults—long before the pandemic.

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It was almost a year after the first cases had been detected in the United States before I was able to reconnect with the ‘regulars’ I knew from the day shelter. I had attempted to keep in contact by phone and email in those early months of the pandemic, but without people’s usual access to libraries and cafes for public internet, and phones often getting misplaced, my contact with them was sporadic and vague. It was not until I got back to the day shelter in person that I was able to really catch up on their experiences. I was terrified about what I would learn. Was everyone okay? Had everyone ‘made it’?

It felt uncanny when I returned to the shelter to find that, aside from its physical location shifting from indoors to a better ventilated outdoor space, life pretty much resembled what it had been pre-pandemic. Food was still being served, only now in individually wrapped packages, and casework services were still being offered, only now through individual appointments, with everyone required to be masked. Outside the building, I found a group of people I had not seen since the start of the pandemic, including John, sitting together on a park bench.

I was surprised, and thankful, to learn from them that no one had been infected by the virus, and that most knew this for certain because they had been getting tested regularly through a free service. What was even more surprising, however, was that some of the regulars had been moved out of their encampments and placed into medium-term accommodation in a hotel. With the travel industry decimated by the pandemic, and conventional homeless night shelters operating at half capacity, the number of people needing access to emergency housing had increased and hotels were looking for occupants. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and homelessness advocacy groups recognised that traditional night shelters were particularly risky in terms of exposure to COVID-19. As a result, local government had partnered with one of the dormant hotels to set up an emergency housing option for those sleeping unsheltered—a site where they could be isolated within individual hotel rooms rather than congregating in public. Billed as a protective measure to prevent homeless people being exposed to the virus, the experience of staying in the hotel felt less caring for some of those who took up the opportunity.

‘John’s been living it up in the Marriot’, someone joked, while jostling John, who glared back. ‘Well, only for one night!’, someone else chuckled, as the whole story was eventually revealed. John had been invited to move in by the social workers overseeing the hotel program because of his increased risk of complications from COVID-19 infection. He was over 60 and had underlying health problems. But John had been unceremoniously kicked out after staying only one night, after a random room search by a hotel attendant revealed a bottle of alcohol in John’s room. He was asked to leave, and even when a social worker tried to convince him to return some time after, John told them that he wouldn’t. He didn’t think the intrusion on his privacy was worth it, an irony I found troubling given his alternative sleeping arrangement was a sleeping bag in a public park.

On the face of it, an initiative to house the unsheltered in a hotel sounds like a positive move to protect people experiencing housing insecurity. But, as they were to find out, this kind of care was conditional, requiring them to submit to strict curfews, limits on socialising, bag and pocket searches, random room checks and other kinds of behaviour monitoring. The initiative to provide shelter to the unhoused relied on patronising and humiliating them into compliance. Many, like John, chose to expose themselves to the virus and the other dangers of sleeping unsheltered rather than submit to those conditions.

But, John told me, the pressure to re-engage with the hotel and the social workers overseeing the program throughout the pandemic was overwhelming. Not only did social workers from other services, like the day shelter, frequently push him to return but also, since the pandemic, street policing for vagrancy had increased. Previously he and others had been treated as a public nuisance; now they were being treated as a threat to public health. John, immensely frustrated, had been picked up for criminal trespassing in the past month while other ‘normal’ people were openly flouting mask mandates and social-distancing rules in public without any repercussions. ‘It’s the same ol’ shit’, he told me.

John’s experiences suggest that more than just public health was at stake in these arrangements. Framed as a source of public contagion, unsheltered sleepers were increasingly subjected to forms of surveillance and policing that produced new forms of risk and trauma. The biopolitics of pandemic management and the necropolitics of exposure rendered homeless people objects of societal care and attention only when their bodies had the potential to threaten and pose a risk to others.

The irony of a global pandemic bringing attention and solutions—no matter how grim—to their need for shelter was not lost on the chronically homeless, who commented to me more than once that they could have used the hotel room twelve months ago before the deadly virus was detected. Emergency housing—which was otherwise touted as a scarce resource for homeless populations—was made available with comical rapidity when their lifestyle posed a risk to the public and not just themselves.

‘Funny…’, John noted, ‘how they can find a place for us when they are really trying, but the rest of the time—nothing!’ The people in our conversation laughed, but the laughter had a bitter edge. 

The frontlines

With the spread of the virus and attempts to prevent exposure to it disrupting so many aspects of normal societal function worldwide, many of us have understandably taken to narrating our experiences and understanding of the pandemic in terms of its exceptionality: as an event or crisis that has suspended normality. We reel from and attempt to reckon with that rupture in and across our personal and work lives. What the alternative experiences of the homeless demand from us, however, is recognition of the many ways the workings of ‘normal’ life are actually perverse. What truly differentiates ‘normal’ life from the exceptional life of the pandemic, with its risk of illness, lockdowns and mandates, is who is exposed to those risks by circumstance rather than choice.

Returning to the frame of necropolitics is helpful when attempting to make sense of these differential gradients of exposure, and the societal structures that situate people within them. War is one of the key examples that Mbembe draws on to theorise necropolitics. War suspends normal prohibitions on violence and harm, designating ‘enemies’ and granting permission to maim, even kill, them without repercussion. But the intention of the necropolitical order is not always so overt. More generally, it is, as Mbembe writes,  ‘the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not’. Citing examples of plantation slavery and apartheid South Africa, Mbembe points out that the power of necropolitics is not so much about the intentional or direct murder of individuals as about the ways that certain kinds of bodies, certain kinds of people, are exposed to death. 

That the response to the pandemic has frequently been described, globally and nationally, as a ‘battle’ and a ‘fight’—the virus is something that needs to be ‘combatted’—alerts us to how the pandemic response relies on a necropolitics. If COVID-19 is a battle, then at some point it needs to be fought, and lives will be sacrificed. ‘Effective’ management of the pandemic is already being read not only in terms of statistics and recorded deaths, but also according to what kinds of people these statistics are formed from: ‘underlying conditions’ or ‘dying with’—rather than ‘from’—COVID-19 has already begun to temper how deaths related to the virus are calculated. As more countries and states move from advising their publics to limit exposure to advising them to manage their exposure, the calculation of life has already begun spinning, prioritising freedoms for some (and economic ‘recovery’) over the potential deaths of those who are vulnerable to complications from the virus. To the horror of disability advocates, stratifications of life are coming to justify risk of exposure. If those risking death are primarily the elderly and those with underlying health conditions (which are often reduced in public media commentary to so-called lifestyle conditions, such as obesity, type-II diabetes, and others), then the pandemic is being ‘effectively’ managed. What does that say about the value of those lives?

The language of war was mobilised early in the pandemic in the United States to legitimise and naturalise a necropolitics. Those same disproportionately low-income and Black and Brown workers who were being mandated to return to ‘essential’ work during the worst peaks of the pandemic had their forced exposure to illness diminished by politicians who clamored to thank them for ‘their service’ as ‘heroes’ on the ‘frontlines’ of the pandemic—the same language used to describe military veterans—as if they had been deployed to a war zone.

When essential workers did get sick, as so many inevitably did, the repercussions were disastrous. With many low-income jobs failing to provide workers with insurance, treatment for COVID-19 became its own economic catastrophe. Those with the added misfortune of experiencing long-COVID symptoms would then have to try to navigate applying for their debilitation to be recognised as a form of disability through an arduous bureaucratic process that relies, ultimately, on discretionary evaluations. Significant evidence suggests that the disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths of people of colour in the United States is linked to their higher representation in occupations that were classified as ‘essential’ during the pandemic.

Here again we see the co-productive workings of biopolitics and necropolitics, with the resumption of normality for some being paid for with the lives of those who are forced to a ‘frontline’ that exposes their bodies to risk and premature death.

Double exposures

As the COVID-19 pandemic promises to recede in its dominance over systems of public health worldwide, it is crucial to continue to observe these co-constitutive patterns of necro- and biopolitics, which are encompassed within the ordinary functioning of societies, not just in times of societal crisis. The lingering effects of the pandemic are to be seen not only in physically infected bodies but also in the wholly predictable political distrust and economic fallout that mismanaged responses to the pandemic have wrought.

I think a lot about homelessness, which commentators—and current housing market instabilities—suggest has likely increased in the United States since the outbreak of COVID-19, despite a federal moratorium on evictions that lasted until August 2021, and novel attempts to respond to housing insecurity during the pandemic. In 2020, homelessness rose by 2 per cent from 2019 numbers, and increased for the fourth year in a row. The biggest increase was in the rise of ‘unsheltered’ people, such as those I work with. While the pandemic prevented an organised homelessness count in 2021, those who work in these areas anecdotally report  a rise in the number of unsheltered homeless people since the beginning of the pandemic. I have observed this myself, noting the new faces seeking emergency assistance at the day shelter, including, distressingly, a number of families with children.

Now that the moratorium on evictions has ended, many of these families have been loaded with unpaid back rent and eviction notices. When I spoke with one of the new families at the shelter, the woman I talked to told me that she had been forced to quit her job to supervise her kids while they did their schooling online. Like thousands of other women, the pandemic had forced her out of the workforce. The result is likely to be catastrophic for her, as for many others.

Seeing public health through the broader lens of exposure enables us to bring light to the parallel public health crises that persist alongside and in conjunction with the pandemic: including, the impending housing crisis that has, in Australia and the United States, produced a housing market so ‘hot’ that it is inaccessible to both buyers and renters, the latter often forced to bid for the privilege of accessing shelter. There are also ongoing issues related to political instability erupting globally, not least in the United States. Most significantly, we must understand exposure as central to the impending public health crisis of climate change, as millions of people worldwide are exposed to the effects of rising sea levels, temperature increases, unseasonal weather events, and fire ‘seasons’ that now last year-round.

All of these are circumstances in which the uneven locus of exposure—operating in conjunction with pre-existing fault lines of class, nationality, race and gender—will draw more and more people into futures of chronic ill-health and premature death. Levels of exposure to these and other circumstances of risk are a measure of the necropolitics at work in our societies, a gradient for estimating how much political attention will be directed at a problem in order to decide who to safeguard, and who to let die.

About the author

Georgina Ramsay

Georgina Ramsay is an Australian anthropologist based at the University of Delaware in the United States. She is co-editor of PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review.

More articles by Georgina Ramsay

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Reflecting the author’s enduring commitment to understanding the lifeworld of the rough-sleeper, this paper not only examined a great topic – the situation of those who were homeless during the pandemic – but did so in a rich and compelling manner. Combining the phenomenological with the critical, what is communicated to the reader are telling snapshots from those with lived experience plus an analysis that introduces a sharp point of engagement – Mbembe’s necropolitics. This mix created a you-beaut contribution!

In her analysis Ramsey noted that ‘the necropoltics of exposure rendered homeless people objects of societal care and attention only when their bodies had the potential to threaten and pose a risk to others.’ This may be true given a strict interpretation of Mbembe’s work, but it is not so simple from the perspective of workers in the field of homelessness – nor for the specific individuals who struggle to survive without shelter. For these people, there is a profound dilemma.

Yes, some who were homeless preferred to stay away from the places that had been temporarily made available to them despite this meaning they remained exposed to the risks of being homeless (the cold; the unhygienic conditions; the nutritional deficits). Yes, the accommodation that was freed-up was, at least in part, made available because rough sleepers were identified by public health authorities as posing a risk to the housed unless they were cordoned off. Yes, the conditions that were imposed in these temporary arrangements were, to a real degree, coercive. These facts definitely acknowledged, the alternative to this regime – ‘a sleeping bag in a public park’ on a freezing winter night – remains viscerally and ethically ‘troubling’ as Ramsey herself noted. Pandemic or no pandemic, there is a steady condition – there is a tension between care and control, between the imperial and the individual. This tension is not unique to the homelessness field, for example in child protection and mental health it also structures the context of theory and practice.

Whilst I would have liked the author to have further examined this perennial tension it is not respectful to over-value this point. What the paper identifies, and then examines, is far more important than any criticism or qualification I think is appropriate to raise. What Ramsey presents is a tough-minded contribution to the consideration of what produces, and what are the fine-grained consequences of, extrusion and abjection. That is a fine accomplishment.

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