Home is the front line for the COVID-19 crisis unfolding in our nation. How we spend time sheltering in place says a lot about the world we 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 for homework, and whose home has the fastest broadband.
The pandemic lays out the differences in “home” starkly.
In Texas, the very people working on keeping us safely in our homes are having trouble living in theirs. These are grocery store workers, janitorial staff, cooks in our favorite restaurants. They are single moms and their kids. They are teachers, firefighters and police officers. The seniors who help with Sunday School. Texans who work hard but whose wages pale against the cost of living.
For more than 9 million Texans, “home” doesn’t mean safety and comfort. It is overcrowded, lacking plumbing, or it is so expensive that other needs like food and health care go unheeded.
As we learn that “social distancing” really means physical distancing, overcrowded homes signify that a community doesn’t have enough affordable housing. Multiple families share homes meant for one couple. Children suffer most in this environment, especially as we establish quarantines and online classrooms. Children, especially young ones, suffer more health problems and lag behind their peers in education. Now, there is no relief and no respite.
In this time of rigid handwashing, some of those 9 million Texas neighbors live in homes that without kitchens or bathrooms. This is unacceptable. But especially today, education makes broadband 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 behind. School campuses offered a safe space, with at least one hot meal a day and internet access for homework.
The challenges of home reach all economic levels, not just those in poverty. 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.
Not being able to afford a home is the most common housing problem for our seniors. When the cost of a home outweighs 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.
COVID-19 is a health crisis, but it is also a crisis of home. Communities across Texas play an important role in the solution, too. Texas Lyceum poll says a whopping 68% of Texans believe our state government should do more to boost affordable housing availability. Respondents know that a home’s affordability and safety are its most important features. 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.
By the end of this pandemic, we will all be ready to greet one another in shops and restaurants and parks around the state. But as we do so, remember those whose home is not a safe place from the uncertainties outside. Remember those who work in grocery stores, restaurants and city parks. Speak up for them today by calling your elected officials and telling them that we must protect people’s access to safe, decent homes. Volunteer and donate to organizations like Habitat who offer a hand up. Pause for a moment to remember that from home we build community. And hope.
Amy Ledbetter Parham is executive director of Habitat for Humanity Texas.