WASHINGTON — There are corners of America where social distancing is practiced with care, but the house in Robesonia, Pa., that Mark Stokes shares with 10 other people is not among them.
Housemates come and go to jobs in fast food and a chocolate factory, sharing a single shower. Dirty dishes crowd the kitchen that no one cleans. Lacking a bed, Mr. Stokes, a freshman at Kutztown University, sleeps on the floor in the room of a friend who took him in when the dorms closed.
No stranger to hardship, Mr. Stokes, who spent part of high school living in a car, worries that the crowded conditions will expose him to coronavirus. But like many poor Americans, he says the sanctioned solution — six feet of physical space — is a luxury he cannot afford.
“It’s just so many people in the house and there’s nothing I can do about it — it’s not my house,” he said, in a voice rising in distress. “You can’t be six feet apart when you have to rely on other people’s space.”
With the pandemic exposing and compounding inequality in matters large and small, access to private, controllable space has emerged as a new class divide — more valuable than ever to those who have it and potentially fatal to those who do not.
Inmates, farmworkers, detained immigrants, Native Americans and homeless families are among the discrete groups whose dilemmas have attracted notice. What they share may be little beyond poverty and one of its overlooked costs: the perils of proximity.
In addition to heightened risk of contagion, close quarters can worsen a host of ills, from flared tempers to child abuse and domestic violence.
“The pandemic is a reminder that privacy is at a premium among the poor — hard to find and extremely valuable,” said Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University. “Living in crowded conditions not only increases the risk of infection but can also impose serious emotional and mental health costs. The ability to retreat into one’s own space is a way to cope with conflict, tension and anxiety.”
After a youth plagued by foster care and homelessness, Mr. Stokes, 20, had just arrived in college, where he was writing a paper on childhood trauma and savoring his private dorm space. Now living in a home with few rules — and none that he sets — reminds him of how much he misses having a stable family.
“I’m really depressed,” he said.
“Shelter in place” is a dictate that assumes the existence of shelter — the safe, stable, controlled environment that poor people often lack. Some are curled on friends’ couches. Some are looking after newly penned-up children in dilapidated homes. Many are dependent on public places — buses, laundromats, convenience stores, food banks, internet connections — at a time when the ability to stay home has never been more valuable.
In Oklahoma City, Cathy Conner, 58, shares a one-room trailer that lacks running water with her boyfriend and two relatives and showers in the bathroom of the R.V. park, after spraying it with bleach. Even the need for social distancing cannot keep her from the busy methadone clinic on which her abstention from heroin rests. “That’s more important than food,” she said.
In Cincinnati, Freda Mason and her five children are sleeping on a friend’s living room floor — their fifth refuge in two years. “We been bouncing around from house to house,” she said.
On Whidbey Island, Wash., Gabby Sutton shares a four-bedroom shelter with six other homeless people — all of them in quarantine while one awaits the results of a coronavirus test. Worse than the fear of infection is the failure she feels for not providing a home for her 12-year-old twins, who are staying with relatives.
“It’s really hard for me to deal with the fact that I can’t take care of my kids,” she said.
Some poorly housed families describe their hardships in terms of physical discomfort or threat: showers without towels, sinks without soap, sleeping quarters without doors, coughs on public buses. Others simply say they miss the feeling of control — the ability to reign supreme over a six-foot radius.
Emily Steinlight, a literary critic at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that the peril of proximity in the lives of the poor is a theme as old as the works of Charles Dickens. “All of his novels deal with the question of space as a luxury,” she said.
“Bleak House,” the 1852 novel some consider Dickens’s best, even traces the class lines of an epidemic, revealing its two-sided logic: Its threat is universal, but its real-world damage concentrates on the poor. “It’s the poorest and most socially marginalized people in the novel who disproportionately die of this disease,” she said. “That also has resonance for what we’re seeing now.”
Indeed it does. Among those disproportionately affected are the incarcerated, with outbreaks hitting the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City (more than 850 cases among inmates and staff), the Cook County jail in Chicago (more than 350 cases), and the Oakdale Federal Correctional facility in Louisiana (at least five inmate deaths). Mounting evidence also indicates the virus disproportionately hurts minorities, with data from New York City suggesting blacks and Latinos dying at twice the rate of whites.
The share of poor families doubled up has been rising for at least two decades, said Hope Harvey, a Cornell University sociologist. After the Great Recession, researchers at the Census Bureau found 20 percent of children were living in shared households, including three-generation homes headed by grandparents. In urban areas, as many as half of children live in doubled-up housing by age 9.
In a forthcoming article in the journal Social Problems, Ms. Harvey notes that such arrangements are frequently fraught with conflict and “hidden psychological costs,” as hosts resent the imposition and guests resent loss of control over matters like who comes and goes. “Not being able to control who enters your household would be particularly scary right now,” she said.
Matthew Desmond, a Princeton sociologist who lived among low-income tenants in Milwaukee for his book “Evicted,” said substandard housing posed a threat to mental health even outside a pandemic. “It sends people a message — that their dignity and health aren’t important,” he said.
In addition to having more stable space, the affluent often have greater latitude to remain inside it. They can work on Zoom, shop on Amazon and have gig workers deliver meals. Often lacking credit cards, computers or other conveniences of middle-class life, the needy are accustomed to errands and lines.
“It’s not just the errands that poor people run, it’s the time the errands take,” Mr. Desmond said. “The world tends to be very capricious with poor people’s time. My fear is this will increase their risk of exposure.”
Audreiona Smith-Parrow, a single mother in St. Louis, offers an example of what might be called the inconvenience tax.
To economize on banking fees, she decided not to order checks. But that left her trekking to a convenience store last week in the middle of the pandemic, to get a money order to pay her rent (though she only had $35 of the $640 she owed). She wore a mask and carried three pairs of gloves and a bottle of Fabuloso.
“It was really nerve-wrecking,” she said, since her daughter has a compromised immune system. “But I wanted them” — the apartment managers — “to see that I was trying.”
Ms. Mason, the Cincinnati mother of five, took several buses in an unsuccessful attempt to secure the W-2 she needed to claim a tax refund. “That’s part of being homeless — you don’t get your mail,” she said. Lacking the money and storage space to buy in bulk, she also made frequent trips to grocery and convenience stores.
Her travels — and the risk they posed of bringing the virus into the household — bothered the friend who took her in. “But I got to do what I got to do,” Ms. Mason said. “I’m more worried about getting myself back on track.”
The reasons poor people ignore social distancing also include the most basic: the need for a paycheck. Before she was quarantined, Ms. Sutton continued to leave the Whidbey Island homeless shelter for her job cleaning houses. “I’m concerned about getting the virus, but I’m trying to get my own house,” she said.
Unstable in the best of times, doubled-up housing may be even more vulnerable to conflict during a pandemic, when closed schools keep homes crowded with children all day and fears of infection add new layers of anxiety. “Family homelessness has always been unsafe and unstable — now the risks are even higher,” said Barbara Duffield, the director of SchoolHouse Connection, a nonprofit group that tries to improve homeless children’s education.
In a coronavirus relief law passed last month, Congress provided a temporary moratorium on some evictions and $4 billion to help shelter the homeless.
Since infection rates among children appear to be low, the pandemic is often described as a blight that is sparing the young. But the social risks inherent in crowded housing may suggest the opposite. Research on the 2008 recession found evidence that rising foreclosures led to increased child abuse. And with schools closed, there is less monitoring.
“People have been saying, ‘Oh, coronavirus doesn’t affect kids — the kids are all right,’” said Bruce Lesley, the president of First Focus on Children, an advocacy group. “They’re so not. They’re at greater risk of sexual assault, suicide, substance abuse, hunger — every aspect of children’s lives is being impacted.”
For Mr. Stokes, the Kutztown student, the pandemic has intensified feelings of trauma he was struggling to overcome. After a stint of foster care at age 3, he attended nine schools in 12 years, while suffering from an anxiety disorder. Estranged from his mother at 17, he spent half his senior year of high school living in a friend’s car.
Despite it all, in January he made it to a four-year college, a source not only of pride but stable housing. “I felt, ‘I don’t have rely on anybody — I got a dorm, I got a 24/7 dining hall, I’m good,’” he said. With hopes of becoming a marriage and family therapist, he chose his first research topic: “How does childhood trauma affect educational success?”
Within two months, he was homeless again.
A high school friend offered him a place at her mother’s house, though space is so limited he shares a room with her and her toddler. (They get the mattress; he gets the floor.) With no closet or dresser, he piles his clothes in a trash bag in the corner — an image of dispossession he finds especially upsetting. The 11 occupants, who share two toilets and one shower, include his friend’s siblings and cousin and their girlfriends.
“Everybody’s coming and going out of the house. No one washes their hands,” he said. “I’m worried they could just give anybody the virus.”
Worse than his fear of the virus is his feeling of lost control, over his surroundings and his future. “I feel powerless,” he said. “All my life, I’ve been hopping from place to place, moving. It’s like I’m some kind of bum.”
When he needs space, Mr. Stokes sits in his car and watches videos. Or he soothes himself by repeating what his calls the “I am” statements he found on the internet.
“I am rich.” “I am strong.” “I am a part of God.”
“I like to listen to things like that,” he said.