“Stay home to stay safe”—that was the guidance from health officials when COVID-19 hit the US. But for people experiencing homelessness, staying home wasn’t possible. And for the homelessness sector, urgent action to keep people safe was critical, as traditional congregate shelters became a serious health threat and as the pandemic’s economic effects threatened to force even more people into homelessness.
In response, federal pandemic relief sent unprecedented amounts of funding for homelessness services into communities. This influx of resources and the urgency to act during the pandemic allowed communities to alter their programs, launch new initiatives, and transform the way they approach homelessness response and prevention services to keep people safe and housed.
We talked with local leaders and service providers in six communities across the US about how they adapted their homelessness services when COVID-19 hit and why the lessons they learned should inform changes that last beyond the pandemic in their own and in other communities.
Here, we’re featuring two places—Maine and Santa Clara County, California—where homelessness response planners and providers broadened their shelter, housing, and homelessness prevention options while focusing on equity and partnering with trusted community organizations to make sure assistance reaches the people who need it most.
Rethinking shelters and expanding housing options in Maine
When COVID-19 first started spreading in the US in March 2020, Preble Street, a nonprofit service provider based in Portland, Maine, had to prepare for a major shift in how it operated. Suddenly, the tight spacing of congregate shelters put guests and staff at risk of contracting the virus, and people living outside faced the threat of the virus’s spreading in encampments.
Preble Street—with the support of the state housing authority, MaineHousing—quickly launched new hotel programs to house people sick from COVID-19, according to Mark Swann, the organization’s executive director. It also expanded its street outreach efforts and opened new “wellness shelters” in gyms and other large spaces to increase the number of shelter beds while keeping people safely spaced apart.
These wellness shelters represented a significant shift from the typical approach to shelters. Although still congregate settings, they stayed open 24/7, gave people their own beds and a place to keep their belongings, and had social workers on site to help connect people with housing and services.
This different approach to shelters helped keep people safe from contracting COVID-19 while also giving them a greater sense of agency—they could choose when they arrived at the shelter, where they kept their belongings, and when they went to bed.
“It really worked,” Swann said. “A lot of people started to feel a little better. And because of that, they started to build a stronger relationship with the social workers who were there. And through that relationship, maybe they could take advantage of some opportunities to get an apartment, or to get medical care, or to get behavioral health services.”
Preble Street plans to apply these lessons to the operation of its current and future shelters, and MaineHousing has encouraged other providers to adopt these strategies. Many providers in Maine and in other communities across the US are also exploring ways to offer shelter options that give people more autonomy and room to spread out, including hotel rooms and other private spaces for people who would do better in noncongregate settings, such as families or people with mental health challenges.
“My hope is that this will translate into a sustained new way of looking at shelters,” Swann said. “These kinds of services are life-saving entry points. Let’s do them better.”
Leveraging a surge in resources to create new housing programs
Shelters, while critical emergency services, aren’t a permanent housing solution. That’s why providers also used the influx of federal funding from pandemic relief packages to expand their housing programs throughout 2020.
Preble Street launched a new rapid re-housing program in September 2020 using a MaineHousing grant funded by the federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act. The organization previously ran a rapid re-housing program for veterans but never had the funding to expand the program to other people experiencing homelessness. In the first nine months of the program, it moved 46 people into permanent housing.
Two of those people are longtime friends James Osgood and Chris Presby. Before the program, Osgood preferred staying in his tent to dealing with the challenges he faced in traditional shelters. The crowded buildings, strict rules and time constraints, and frequent thefts of his belongings kept him away. For four years, he lived in a tent in the woods near Portland, enduring harsh Maine winters with Presby, who shared the tent and helped watch his back.
Through the Preble Street program, they were able to finally leave homelessness. Osgood and Presby moved into an apartment in Westbrook, a few miles outside Portland, in February 2021. The rapid re-housing program is paying their rent and providing case management services to help them apply for jobs and find stable health care.
Osgood’s favorite aspects of his new apartment are his bedroom door and that Presby can be there with him. “He’s one of my best friends—I’m so glad he doesn’t have to sleep outside anymore,” Osgood said. “When we aggravate each other, I go to my room, he goes to his room, that’s what we do. I shut my door, and I sit on my bed, and I lay on my pillows. I am totally happy for once in my life.”
But even with additional resources, Preble Street case workers struggle to find apartments that are affordable in the increasingly tight Portland housing market. And the program’s future is unclear because the CARES Act grant ends this fall.
Addressing challenges in rural areas and focusing on equity in services
New housing programs and major changes to shelter services—such as staying open 24/7, increasing staffing, and acquiring space for more private shelter bed options—require funding levels that most providers in the state, especially those in rural areas, have never had, according to Swann.
Rural areas also face significant challenges that urban centers do not—for example, a lack of accessible transportation options that connect people with health care providers hundreds of miles away, a problem that became even more pressing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even before the pandemic, Maine was working on a plan to address some of those challenges by shifting its homelessness response system and creating nine service hubs across the state that will allow people to access services closer to where they live, rather than having to figure out how to travel to an urban center.
In addition to improving the statewide network to boost services in rural areas, Maine is focusing on how to ensure that services are offered equitably. In a state where 94 percent of residents are white, 22 percent of the 2,097 people experiencing homelessness before the pandemic were people of color. And during the pandemic, 37 percent of people at Preble Street’s shelter for those who tested positive for COVID-19 were people of color, demonstrating the stark racial disparities in both the homeless population and COVID-19 infections.
To improve equity in services, Preble Street and other providers are ensuring that all their programs are culturally competent, with outreach and services offered in the primary languages of their clients and through organizations trusted in the community.
“There’s no question doing anti-poverty work is doing anti-racism work,” Swann said. “And that’s never been more obvious than it is right now.”
Partnering with trusted community organizations to improve homelessness prevention in Santa Clara County, California
In early March 2020, Latinas Contra Cancer (LCC), based in San Jose, California, received an urgent call from a client: they had lost their job and their housing in the same day. Then, the dam broke. LCC— an organization that focuses on health education and advocacy in the Latinx community—heard from dozens of clients, most of whom were cancer patients, who suddenly couldn’t pay their bills and faced the threat of eviction and homelessness.
LCC worked mainly on health issues before the pandemic and didn’t have much experience offering financial assistance, but the organization knew it had to quickly pivot to help its clients.
“There was this huge economic despair happening within our client base,” said Darcie Green, CEO and executive director of LCC. “So, as a health justice organization, the urgent need to stay housed and the urgent need for rent assistance and basic utility assistance was so apparent. It was what our clients needed us to do at that time, so that they could focus on their cancer diagnosis, so that they could focus on their health. They needed their basic needs met.”
At first, Green sought funding from cancer organizations and other philanthropies to help clients pay rent and other major bills. But most of those sources offered small dollar amounts, and some wouldn’t authorize assistance to people who were undocumented, a large share of LCC’s client base.
LCC then connected with the Santa Clara County Homelessness Prevention System (HPS), a program that provides temporary financial assistance to people struggling to keep their housing. Through HPS, LCC received money and technical guidance so it could offer cash and rental assistance to hundreds of clients, helping them stay in their homes as the pandemic raged through the community.
A countywide effort to equitably and effectively prevent homelessness
HPS, led by Destination: Home and Sacred Heart Community Service, launched in 2017 to help address the county’s growing homelessness challenges, spurred by the loss of affordable housing and the growth in economic inequality in the Silicon Valley area. In 2020, 9,605 people experienced homelessness in Santa Clara County, and 82 percent of them were unsheltered.
“For every person that we can get off the streets, two people fall into homelessness,” said Jennifer Loving, CEO of Destination: Home.
The pandemic’s economic effects sent demand for financial assistance skyrocketing. In March 2020, HPS quickly raised $12 million in philanthropic funds to help county residents with low incomes stay in their homes. HPS advertised those resources to residents on its website, and within three days, the entire $12 million was depleted.
HPS later received federal CARES Act money and additional state and local resources. For the distribution of those funds, the program leaders reevaluated their approach, centering residents’ voices to learn the best way to meet their needs and ensuring equity was built into the process.
That focus on equity was crucial: people of color faced disparities in wealth, health, and housing stability before the pandemic, and COVID-19 threatened to widen those gaps even further. The racial disparities in homelessness are stark in Santa Clara County. Latinx people and Black people make up 27 percent and 3 percent of the county’s population, respectively, but before the pandemic, 44 percent of people experiencing homelessness were Latinx, and 17 percent were Black.
HPS worked with community partners to survey San Jose residents who were left out of other assistance options, most of whom were people of color, to find out what they needed to avoid losing their homes. “The principle we operate under is, ‘Don’t do things for people without people,’” said Poncho Guevara, executive director of Sacred Heart.
The principle we operate under is, ‘Don’t do things for people without people.’
Through the survey, residents were clear: they needed cash to pay rent and other bills like utilities, they needed that money immediately, and they wanted to receive money from people they trust.
“In order to get it from people that they trust, we had to give the money to people that they trust,” Loving said. The program expanded its group of partners, bringing in grassroots organizations that have deep connections to the community and providing them with the technical assistance necessary to get the money to clients quickly.
HPS also restricted the funds to households with extremely low incomes (those making 30 percent or less of the area median income), and it targeted people who were left out of expanded unemployment assistance or stimulus checks, including people who are undocumented and those who work in the informal job market. Previous evidence has shown that programs that target emergency rental assistance to people with extremely low incomes are more effective at preventing homelessness and more cost-effective than programs with less stringent income requirements.
Between March 2020 and February 2021, HPS distributed $36 million in rent relief and direct financial assistance to 15,000 households. Of those households, 77 percent had extremely low incomes, and 94 percent were people of color. Loving said that result “wasn’t because we said that’s what we were going to do, but because we trusted the community to give the money out where it needed to go.” By the end of 2020, the program had expanded to 70 organizations, including LCC.
A lasting need for financial assistance
One of LCC’s clients, Carmen (who asked that her real name not be used), received a cancer diagnosis right before the pandemic started. Then COVID-19 made everything worse: her hours were cut drastically when customers stopped coming to the store where she worked, she was terrified of contracting the virus in her immunocompromised state, and she could no longer afford to pay rent for the home where she has lived with her two children and her mother for several years. Without a Social Security number, she didn’t qualify to receive unemployment assistance or federal stimulus money.
Carmen had previously connected with LCC to join the organization’s support group for women with breast cancer. After her hours at work were reduced, she called LCC for help. With HPS’s resources, LCC paid her back rent to make sure she and her family didn’t lose their home.
Now, after recovering from COVID-19 earlier this year, Carmen is looking for a job that will allow her to keep her family afloat. She borrowed money from a neighbor to pay her cell phone bill and reconnect her internet, which was crucial for her kids’ virtual schooling in the spring. But because of LCC’s assistance through HPS, she has been able to stay in her home.
“They’ve been great emotional support and financial support,” Carmen said through a translator. “It’s great to know there are organizations out there that are there for us, and they are truly there to help us.”
LCC is now a permanent partner in HPS, and Green expects the need for financial assistance and homelessness prevention resources to continue long after the pandemic subsides.
“We know in the Latino community that COVID recovery is going to be a very long road because of the inequities and disparities we experience,” Green said. “That communities of color—and particularly in this area, the Latino community—would be so disproportionately impacted by this pandemic, by the impact to the health care system, by loss of income, is completely predictable. And it’s also preventable.”
Ensuring the lessons of COVID-19 become permanent change in the homelessness sector
Local leaders from both Maine and Santa Clara County said they hope the pandemic has highlighted the importance of strengthening and investing in every step of the housing continuum, from homelessness prevention to emergency shelter to permanent housing.
Guevara wants to make sure the lessons of COVID-19 aren’t lost as the pandemic eases, because its economic impacts will continue well into the future. He advises other communities to continue to strengthen their partnerships with grassroots organizations and center residents’ voices when designing homelessness response and prevention programs, because they are the experts in what they need.
“We need to continue to invest in that lived experience, that voice, that power of community members to be not only the ones guiding us, but the champions and the partners, and ultimately the ones doing the work,” Guevara said.
Swann hopes the pandemic has emphasized the importance of homelessness services to the broader public health infrastructure, and he hopes that recognition leads to sustained levels of investment from policymakers that would allow providers to continue these improved services for the long term.
“When all this is over, we don't want to get a pat on the back,” Swann said. “We want things to change.”
This feature was funded by the Melville Charitable Trust as part of the Framework for an Equitable COVID-19 Homelessness Responseproject. We are grateful to them and to all our funders, who make it possible for Urban to advance its mission. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Funders do not determine research findings or the insights and recommendations of our experts.
See the project page to learn more about six communities’ homelessness response during the pandemic, including key themes and lessons for the future of the homelessness sector.
DEVELOPMENT Jerry Ta
EDITING Meghan Ashford-Grooms
PHOTO EDITING Rhiannon Newman
WRITING Emily Peiffer