Blacksburg COVID-19 (copy)

Scene from downtown Blacksburg during the COVID-19 outbreak, April 8, 2020.

During this unprecedented time, many things have changed, both small and big, from having to wear a mask to the grocery store to not being able to visit family and friends. Of course, Virginia Tech has not been excluded from these changes. The majority of classes are online. Club and organization gatherings are all regulated to Zoom. Football games are to be viewed from home and have been  pushed back further and further. While these changes aren’t ideal, it’s important to put things into perspective, because these changes are minimal compared to the other ways COVID-19 has affected other people’s lives. 

While homelessness has been a problem in southwestern Virginia for some time, the spread of COVID-19 has complicated the issue even further. The novel coronavirus has hit multiple markets and has increased the unemployment rate in Virginia. But where does homelessness in the region stem from? 

“I think that one really important thing to include is that the physical infrastructure for supporting people is much more difficult in rural areas. Public transportation, the ability to walk to a food pantry or a shelter is more difficult in a rural area,” said Dr. Jordan Laney, a professor in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech. “So homelessness looks different. I think a key player is — there’s a systemic structural challenge that [has] been made harder due to pouring prescription drugs into the region. A lot of our policies don’t take that into account and that really hurts people who use drugs or people who are homeless.

“Obviously COVID has made life much more difficult. The issues we have leading to homelessness connected to drug use, then your ability to have access to healthcare has changed with COVID, basic education around drug use and healthcare has been hit,” Laney said. “People who are considered essential workers often have the lowest paying jobs. So [we’re] placing those who are making lower wages on the front lines of getting COVID. It’s heartbreaking, but … you’d have to be pretty intentional about not noticing the cracks we have in the system now and the ways we have to take care of each other.” 

Laney offered some options on how we can help those around us. 

“Mutual aid networks are great. I tend to tell people to use caution when joining service projects, because they often are kind of fly in, fly out and they don’t empower both parties,” said Laney. “They may be, like, offering canned food, but that’s not really addressing the root issue of the causes. I would encourage people to vote for people who write policies that don’t stigmatize people who use drugs, vote for people who write just policies. Policy has such a huge impact.” 

So while I am frustrated that I can’t tailgate or go to a football game, I think we need to realize that although no one has not been affected by COVID-19, there are people who have lost their jobs and have to feed their families and those who can’t afford medicine and so forth. We need to realize the position we are in and the power we have to help our community. Donate to your local YMCA, check in on that friend who struggles with isolation and shop at locally owned businesses. Instead of complaining, let’s get some perspective, and help any way we can.