Lessons from Communities’ Responses to Homelessness during the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of housing and homelessness services as public health infrastructure. To understand how different communities across the United States adapted their homelessness responses during the pandemic to keep people safe and housed, we explored the responses in six places: Denver; Maine; rural and suburban Ohio; Richmond, Virginia; San Jose, California; and Seattle.

Through interviews with stakeholders and publicly available data, we learned about the full range of strategies these communities used to address health and safety, housing, and services needs for people experiencing sheltered and unsheltered homelessness and those at risk of losing their homes.

Given the disproportionate impact of homelessness and COVID-19 on people of color, we focused on strategies intended to advance racial equity. We further explored the different challenges facing providers in urban and rural areas. The lessons from these six communities can help local, state, and federal leaders and other service providers design more effective homelessness response programs and policies beyond the pandemic.

Profiles of communities’ homelessness response during the pandemic

In the coming months, we will release case studies profiling the six communities and a feature highlighting the stories of service providers and community members in Maine and San Jose, California. The first three case studies and the feature are below.

Key themes from community stakeholder interviews

Through interviews with 50 stakeholders—including homelessness response system planners and providers, health care organizations, and state and local organizations—across the six communities, we heard the following key themes:

  • Transform shelters. Homelessness response systems took immediate steps to improve the safety of shelters by staying open 24/7, increasing physical distance, and relaxing restrictions.
  • Create more noncongregate options. Many communities used hotels and motels to create noncongregate shelter options. These spaces better supported people’s dignity, in addition to their physical health, by giving them privacy and a place of their own.
  • Boost homelessness prevention. Rental assistance programs kept people housed during the pandemic. Successful programs partnered with grassroots organizations embedded in communities, reduced barriers to applications, and distributed flexible funds quickly.
  • Center people with lived experience. Programs prioritized disproportionately affected communities of color, targeting outreach and assistance to specific neighborhoods in partnership with organizations already working there. Programs also ensured appropriate service delivery by training staff on cultural competency, translating materials and employing bilingual staff, and paying community members to be trusted ambassadors and provide feedback on program design.

Lessons for the future of the homelessness sector

Federal, state, and local policymakers and homelessness system stakeholders have the opportunity to incorporate lessons from the pandemic into future programs:

  • Expand the range of shelter options. Reevaluating the traditional approach to shelters and finding new noncongregate shelter options will allow providers to better serve people who need a range of shelter choices.
  • Invest in permanent housing and homelessness prevention. More funding is needed for permanent housing options and for financial assistance to keep people in their homes. An influx of federal assistance enabled localities to create or boost prevention, diversion, and re-housing during the pandemic. Communities will need sustained investment to maintain this capacity.
  • Increase funding to maintain a robust response. The pandemic response took Herculean effort from homelessness system planners and service providers on the ground. These enhanced services were made possible by the influx of federal funding. With similar funding commitments going forward, these service transformations would be possible for the long term.

Additional resources

About

This project was funded by the Melville Charitable Trust as part of the Framework for an Equitable COVID-19 Homelessness Response project. 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 Urban experts.

Authors: Samantha Batko, Nicole DuBois, Abby Boshart, and Mary Cunningham