Cities and counties across the country are focused on implementing public health strategies to address COVID-19. In order for this strategy to be successful, it must address the needs of people experiencing homelessness. Without accounting for this population, strategies may fail to prevent deaths, contribute to further spread of the disease, and risk overwhelming hospitals’ capacity to serve all who need care. Ensuring that people experiencing homelessness are protected is not only crucial for the current period of crisis response, but also as communities prepare for the impact of the economic downturn and future waves of coronavirus.
We have heard from the leaders on the front lines of protecting this population, and compiled common needs and challenges they are facing.
1. Cities and counties have moved many people experiencing homelessness into temporary shelters like hotels and motels to enable quarantine and isolation.
Communities need political will, resources, and processes to successfully accelerate and maximize permanent housing placements for these individuals.
- Maximizing permanent housing placements has spurred some homeless response systems to explore and respond to changes to existing prioritization policies and processes.
- Homeless response systems are working to understand how to make shallow subsidy housing models, like rapid rehousing, work for high-need populations who may need more extended or intensive support.
- Continuing the process of moving people into permanent housing is highly reliant on technology, since organizations leading these efforts have adjusted these processes to continue moving forward virtually or over the phone. However, the organizations and their clients lack sufficient access to the technology they need to facilitate these virtual processes.
- Premature deadlines set for shelter closures and reopenings are not always aligned with the needs of the population, which can create bottlenecks, unsafe conditions, or instances where people do not have a safe place to go. These decisions by counties and cities officials must be coordinated to facilitate the safe temporary and permanent housing of individuals experiencing homelessness.
2. Communities feel the urgent need to address a surge of people experiencing homelessness, which will be triggered by immediate, short-, and medium-term impacts of COVID-19.
Most immediately, this includes a population of people who are experiencing homelessness and are temporarily residing in quarantine and isolation spaces, like hotels and motels, which are in the process of closing down or set to close. Other people at high risk include those who have been protected by moratorium on evictions or limited moratoria for residents who can demonstrate lost wages, which are set to expire in the coming weeks and months. Finally, the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the economy has resulted in an unemployment rate of 14.7%, a level unseen since the depths of the Great Depression in 1933. One expert has projected that this could lead to a 40-45% increase in homelessness this year, which would mean 500,000-800,000 Americans would be experiencing homelessness.
- Addressing this inflow will require moving upstream to protect low-income populations who will be impacted by the expiration of eviction protections. We anticipate that these consequences will drive further racial disparities, disproportionately impacting people of color, and particularly Black and Native Americans.
- Addressing this inflow will require strategies to address a population of people who may be experiencing homelessness for the first time.
- In order to reduce inflow into veteran homelessness, communities are considering how to most effectively target and utilize new SSVF funding before it expires.
3. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued recommendations that people in homeless shelters be tested for COVID-19.
Communities have varying degrees of testing capacity, but many have expressed a concern that they do not have sufficient capacity to accurately understand rates of infection for people experiencing homelessness. One common experience was that communities are only testing symptomatic individuals, but do not have access to testing people who are asymptomatic. This is particularly pressing for individuals experiencing homelessness, who are both at high risk of exposure, complication, and death. Researchers have estimated that 40% of people experiencing homelessness could contract the virus, and that they are twice as likely to be hospitalized.