Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

Pick a SPECIFIC date to explore

Sep 10: Trump says that his public downplaying of the dangers of COVID was a sign of him showing strength.

Sep 11: Two senior officials at HHS, Michael Caputo and the head of SAMHSA, Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, criticize the continued coronavirus lockdowns on Caputo’s podcast, The Learning Curve. Catastrophic fires continue in California and Oregon. Trump-brokered peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban begin. Fauci warns that we will have to “hunker down” for the fall and winter. The CDC says eating at restaurants is the most likely way to be exposed to COVID-19.

From the Cutting Room Floor ...

A welcome letter arrives from my friend, the poet, Chrystos, who lives in Tacoma, Washington. (We’re putting these in their original, beautiful form in the “Exhibits” section of this museum.) “I’m calmer now because our lawyer, Elizabeth, has gone after the abusive landlords at our trailer park who are trying to evict us… “Why are you trying to evict these women?” Elizabeth asked. Since homophobia, racism, and misogyny are answers, they’ve gone silent.” This is good news after her earlier letters described the landlords’ tearing up of their yard. I still worry for her and her partner Sunny.

“Nearly every aspect of the public response to COVID-19 simply does not work for the homeless population,” writes Gavin Jones, from Philadelphia. If you think about it, everything that we have done to mitigate this virus has required that you have a home. “Those without housing cannot obey a shelter-in-place order,” Gavin reminds me, “and maintaining social distancing in a homeless shelter is nearly impossible,” He sighs. “Testing also presents problems for the homeless; those without a permanent address or even cellphones lack a reliable way to receive their results.” Shelter is its own basic need, but in a society where communication and distribution of resources are centered around a permanent residence, those without housing are dangerously marginalized. The state of Pennsylvania has set up a program to provide rental assistance to those who need it, but restrictions on application and other issues with the program meant that only half of the allocated funds were actually given away.[1]

The problem of housing in cities like Philadelphia is not just one of construction or temporary shelter, but of community autonomy and gentrification. The Philadelphia Housing Authority, a federally funded city authority that acts as a landlord to many low-income residents, owns many houses that sit vacant throughout the city. Over the years, they have sold many of these properties in bundles to developers, even as over 40,000 residents have been sitting on a waiting list for public housing since 2013.[2] Protestors allege that this disparity is a result of an intentional pattern of gentrification, as the city allows its properties to decay, seizes the surrounding homes through eminent domain on grounds of blight, and sells them to developers who build university dorms. This is a story that is playing out all in cities all over the country.

The pandemic has made the experience of homelessness even harder than it was before. Paula, a homeless woman in Savannah, Georgia, remembers how, in the first few weeks of the lockdown, “it was impossible to get stuff that we need. You know, we use hand sanitizer all the time because, well, you’ve got no real way to wash your hands out here. We live by the stuff… Toilet paper! We need it too. Just the panic overall really affected us because everybody was only thinking about themselves.”[3] Frank, in New York, suddenly had no access to public bathrooms, the free meals from the church nearby, and the subway, which closed from 1AM to 5AM. Tiffany, who has a job as a necessary worker cleaning medical equipment in a hospital in Milpitas, California, could not get to a shower after her shifts ended, despite handling materials that had been used on Covid patients. If housing is a human right, then we have failed.


[1] Hurubie Meko, “Why Is the Pa. Rental Assistance Program Closing with Millions of Unspent Dollars?,” LancasterOnline, n.d.,

[2] Philadelphia Housing Authority, “PHA Auction of Vacant Properties Yields $8.4 Million,” June 25, 2019,

[3] Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, “Covid’s Invisible Victims,”

Read more
Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Local Area Unemployment Statistics,” September 11, 2020.
Eviction Lab. “Milwaukee, Wisconsin | Eviction Tracking System.” Eviction Lab, September 11, 2020.
Greenpointers Staff. “Vigil for Cyclist Sarah Pitts to March From Fort Greene Park to McCarren Park Friday Night.” Greenpointers, September 11, 2020.
HealthDay News. “COVID-19 May Have Been in LA Months Earlier than Thought.” UPI, September 11, 2020.
Winters, Joseph. “Oregon’s Air Quality Is so Far beyond ‘Hazardous’ That No One Knows What It Means for Health.” Grist (blog), September 11, 2020.
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Additional Links
  • Karabanow, Jeff. Being Young and Homeless: Understanding How Youth Enter and Exit Street Life. Peter Lang, 2004.
  • Kozol, Jonathan. Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America. Crown Publishers, 1988.