The blog of the Urban Institute
August 6, 2020

What can Disaster Managers Learn from Homeless Assistance Providers During COVID-19?

Hurricane and wildfire seasons are upon us, which have brought devastation to people and property every year. But this year, we’ll face a collision of devastating events—natural disasters with a pandemic –creating a  unique set of problems for evacuation, shelter, and case management. How can we evacuate and house people fleeing from natural hazards while avoiding COVID-19 exposure?

Immediately preceding many natural hazard events, state and local governments issue alerts and evacuation orders to ensure residents move out of harm’s way. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for disasters this year still recommend preparing mass public evacuation shelters. Shelters are often warehouse-style buildings, such as a convention center or stadium. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, congregate shelters are not a safe option.

Amid the pandemic, standard evacuation procedures will not suffice. This perfect storm of hazards and pandemic requires new strategies to ensure public safety. To inform their response this summer, state and local governments and disaster responders can look to how the homeless assistance system pivoted to respond to COVID-19 when it first hit.

Make mass transportation safer

In April, Los Angeles County needed to transport several people living in a homeless encampment to a motel. With the private bus industry at a standstill due to the pandemic, the effort used large private buses. With advanced planning, the challenges of enforcing proper safety measures during transport can be anticipated and abated.

Hurricane and wildfire evacuation plans typically include instructions for personal transportation and guidance for using mass transportation systems, especially buses, to move households to safe locations. During a pandemic, mass transit is risky.

To minimize transmission risk while providing efficient transportation, disaster responders can start planning now. They can consider providing volunteer drivers with protective equipment for themselves and passengers, premarking large vehicles for physical distancing, and timing cyclical drop-offs to ensure a continuous evacuation flow with time to clean vehicles between trips. 

Provide noncongregate emergency housing solutions

Homeless service providers learned early in the pandemic that COVID-19 can transmit quickly in congregate emergency shelters. With the hospitality industry suffering economically from halts in tourism due to the pandemic, communities looked to hotels and motels as safe housing solutions for their homeless clients.

For example, Project Roomkey in California housed people experiencing homelessness in hotels and motels to keep them isolated in private rooms with private bathrooms and door-to-door food delivery, making hotels and motels significantly safer than congregate shelters. Another program in Virginia (PDF) ensured social services and cleaning supplies were also offered to each relocated household in hotels or motels.

To minimize the risk of contagion while proving emergency shelter, disaster responders must start pivoting their approach now. They can use the plans and timeframes (PDF) for housing services developed by homeless assistance organizations and other compiled learnings as stepping stones for disaster planning. Disaster responders can identify viable hotels and motels in advance, such as those with high structural integrity to face strong winds and floods, or those out of the path of storms or high-risk fires. Service delivery can then be directed to these predetermined locations.   

Based on the challenges the homeless services sector faced, the following are some issues to consider when using hotels and motels for evacuees:

  • Financing. Determine whether state and local governments will be reimbursed by federal dollars because the two distinct emergencies—the national pandemic and the local hazard event—have different triggers for federal funds.
  • Hotel contracts. Secure temporary contracts with hotels in advance. Being transparent about the characteristics of the people hotels will serve may prevent contracts from falling through. Related pandemic relocation programs suggest smaller hotel chains or those coordinated through hotel associations may be more amenable to temporary arrangements.
  • Unit availability. Unlike stadiums, evacuations to hotels will likely require multiple facilities. Be clear how many units are available at each location.
  • Communication and logistics. Sharing information about all participating facilities and clearly communicating when facilities are at capacity and where to direct transport of evacuees will be critical. Including notices about services and recommendations within facilities will improve evacuee compliance to physical distancing and minimize coronavirus transmission. Ensure staffing is established across all facilities in advance, particularly if staffing involves volunteer organizations and emergency management personnel along with the hotel’s own services to ensure service delivery is timely for the needs of evacuees.
  • Health services. Along with traditional emergency case management, add additional services, including COVID-19 testing and contact tracing. Ensure COVID-19 testing is accessible and available to all evacuees. Some cities have provided thorough and updated information online about locations and services, including testing. One initiative in Albuquerque deployed mobile health units (PDF) directly to hotels to conduct COVID-19 tests and offer other necessary health treatments.

Plan for longer-term safe housing

In light of the current pandemic and inevitable ones to come, some local homeless service providers and governments are considering buying financially struggling hotels as a more permanent replacement to congregate emergency shelters. Though permanent housing is not a goal of emergency management, longer-term options will still be key for evacuees who have extensive home damage and cannot return home or relocate amid the pandemic.

After major emergency events like hurricanes, residents whose homes were rendered uninhabitable can access temporary sheltering assistance (PDF) for five days and up to six months as requested and coordinated with state emergency mangers. With the ongoing risks of transmission in the US this summer, emergency managers could consider new resources and timeframes as recovery proceeds, such as extending contracts for a subset of hotels.

It’s critical to plan now

Ultimately, we must ensure families are not escaping one disaster and moving toward another. Advanced planning, coordination, and available funds are critical to protect at-risk households from hazards. Breaking down siloes between agencies can help sectors learn from one another and adapt together. Disaster relief response during COVID-19 can benefit from lessons learned by the homeless assistance system and other sectors that have been problem solving since the start of the pandemic.

People take shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center after flood waters from Hurricane Harvey inundated the city on August 29, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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