HOMELESS PEOPLE

Who’ll speak for the invisibles?

Street families remain invisible in government emergency responses to Covid-19.

In Summary
  • Government emergency responses against Covid-19 are silent on the distribution of face masks, water and sanitation services to the invisibles.
  • Directives may make sense to you and I, but to the invisibles, they are alien and inconceivable.

They live amongst us but we don’t see them. They wander the streets in search of food and shelter. According to the 2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census, we have more than 20,000 homeless street persons in the country.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing stated that housing has become the front-line defence against the coronavirus. Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation. Homeless people and street families are already susceptible to many health problems, including malaria, respiratory infections and malnutrition.

Covid-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020, and Kenya has reported more than 343 cases since confirming its first case on March 13. With infection rates expected to rise, Covid -19 only adds to the list of contagious diseases homeless people are susceptible to contracting.

In his April 6 address, the President announced an appropriation of an additional Sh10 billion to the elderly, orphans and other vulnerable members of our society through cash transfers by the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection to cushion them from the adverse economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Public Finance Management (Covid-19 Emergency Response Fund) Regulations, 2020, speak of funding programmes and initiatives towards cushioning and provision of emergency relief to the most vulnerable, older and poor persons in urban informal settlements. While these directives are welcome and necessary, what remains disquieting is the lack of mention in ensuring the protection of street families and homeless people.

The homeless and street families remain invisible in government emergency responses to Covid-19. How do the invisibles protect themselves from the disease if they lack access to information, basic amenities such as clean water and sanitation, and a roof over their heads so they can #StayHome? The government emergency responses against Covid-19 are silent on the distribution of face masks, water and sanitation services to the invisibles.

Staying at home when you have no home, washing your hands frequently when you don’t have the luxury of a regular bath, use of hand sanitiser when you can’t afford a basic meal: This is their deplorable reality.

All these government directives may make sense to you and I, but to the invisibles, they are alien and inconceivable. Staying at home when you have no home, washing your hands frequently when you don’t have the luxury of a regular bath, use of hand sanitiser when you can’t afford a basic meal: This is their deplorable reality. The invisibles have long been practising ‘self-isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ as their way of life: vagabonds of the society. Home to them is any street pavement, corner or bridge that can offer them some kind of “protection” against natural elements, harassment and attacks from law enforcement or criminals.

The International Day for Street Children celebrated on April 12 felt like a bleep on the screen, with hardly any coverage or mention. It is critical to employ an inclusive approach in the development of policies and strategies for containing this disease, so as to ensure no one is left behind. The government must urgently provide sufficient facilities for homeless people and those in inadequate housing to isolate themselves if needed, provide them with water and sanitation facilities, and ensure that no one is left vulnerable to catching the disease.

While vaccines and cures for Covid-19 are still being developed and unlikely to be available in the short term, the invisibles including those infected or suspected of being so or having been exposed to the virus still need access to healthcare and if necessary, supportive care to manage the symptoms and consequences of the virus.

While access to adequate housing and healthcare is critical to protecting oneself from Covid-19, stopping its spread and recovering from it, it is also a right enshrined in our Constitution under Article 43. This means that post-Covid-19 when we can declare and celebrate with the world having successfully slain this monster called coronavirus, the government will still be obligated to respect, protect and fulfil the right to adequate housing and healthcare for all without discrimination.

Adequate housing campaigner at Amnesty International – Kenya