Unsheltered homelessness was a crisis in America before COVID-19. On any given night in 2019, more than 210,000 people (PDF) in the US were forced to sleep outside—on sidewalks or benches, in cars or abandoned buildings. And the crisis has been growing, as the number of people enduring unsheltered homelessness grew 22 percent (PDF) between 2015 and 2019.
Black people, already overrepresented among people forced to live outside, and Latinx people make up significant shares of recent growth in the unsheltered homeless population (PDF), largely because of systemic racism and discrimination in the housing market, employment, and other systems throughout US history. And the unsheltered homelessness crisis could get even worse. One analysis predicts a 40 to 45 percent increase in homelessness caused by pandemic-related job losses. With Black and Latinx households seeing higher unemployment rates and reduced work hours and income during the pandemic, their overrepresentation among people experiencing homelessness could grow.
During the spread of COVID-19, the unsheltered homelessness crisis has garnered more attention, as images have gone viral of people living outside in socially distanced parking lots, with only painted lines separating them from hundreds of others around them.
People forced to live outside were already at a higher risk of spreading communicable diseases, and their living situations resulted in poor health outcomes (PDF). Given the greater likelihood that COVID-19 will spread among this group and the fact that Black and Latinx people face a greater risk of COVID-19 infection, protecting people enduring unsheltered homelessness should be a priority in community responses to COVID-19. But this largely hasn’t happened. As a result, most people enduring unsheltered homelessness have remained outside, and the continued use of police sweeps of homeless encampments puts people at even greater risk of contracting and spreading the virus.
As communities decide where to direct federal rental assistance during the pandemic, they should prioritize people enduring unsheltered homelessness. Rapid re-housing is an evidence-based solution that can help people leave homelessness and find stable housing. Investing in rapid re-housing can prevent people experiencing unsheltered homelessness from getting sick, slow the spread of COVID-19, and reduce the number of people involved with police encampment sweeps.
COVID-19 responses largely haven’t focused on the unsheltered homeless population
As the COVID-19 response evolved, communities made unprecedented investments in hotels and motels for people experiencing homelessness, including efforts like California’s Project Roomkey. If people living outside were placed in these rooms, the number of people living outside would decline, and this group, which faces a greater risk of COVID-19 infection, would be better protected.
But despite the expansion of the use of hotels and motels for people experiencing homelessness, our analysis of continuum of care data shows that efforts to place people in rooms have mostly focused on decreasing the concentration of people in shelters and on isolating people who became sick or were in a high-risk group (such as those older than 65), not on people enduring unsheltered homelessness.
Sweeps of homeless encampments—or groupings of people living outside, often in tents or makeshift housing—were also identified as increasing risk to people living in encampments and the broader community. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance that recommended communities halt sweeps and instead help people living in encampments stay healthy and maintain sufficient space.
But despite that guidance, encampment sweeps continued, as many cities continue to use law enforcement to force people living in groupings to disperse, usually discard possessions, and find somewhere else to sleep. These sweeps can put people experiencing homelessness at even greater risk of spreading COVID-19, and they can break the connection between people experiencing homelessness and service providers that provide resources and information on staying safe during the pandemic.
Rapid re-housing can help people leave homelessness and stay safe during the pandemic
COVID-19 responses should prioritize evidence-based strategies to help people enduring unsheltered homelessness. Rapid re-housing is a key strategy that can help people leave unsheltered homelessness and find housing stability.
Rapid re-housing is a time-limited intervention that provides people with housing search assistance, rent assistance, and stabilizing case management using a Housing First approach—in which people are first given a stable home without having to meet requirements (such as maintaining sobriety or seeking treatment) so they can improve other aspects of their lives. Compared with other Housing First programs, such as permanent supportive housing, rapid re-housing is a short-term intervention intended to maximize the number of people who can be exited from homelessness and stabilized in permanent housing quickly.
Rapid re-housing has been shown to decrease the amount of time people experience homelessness and to help people reenter the private rental market without ongoing assistance. People who receive rapid re-housing generally do not return to homelessness (PDF) within two years and have better employment and income outcomes than people who remain without a home.
Rapid re-housing is sometimes considered an intervention for people trying to exit a shelter, but it is also used for people who are living unsheltered. In 2018, more than 40,000 (nearly half) of the veterans rapidly re-housed through the highly successful Supportive Services for Veteran Families program were unsheltered before re-housing, and the share of veterans being re-housed from unsheltered locations has increased over the program’s implementation.
Aside from the direct benefits of rapid re-housing for people who are re-housed, the intervention is less expensive than the default interventions people are typically offered or are forced into when living outside, including shelter and time spent in jails or hospitals.
If communities want to reduce the number of people living unsheltered, reduce police intervention in encampments, and slow the spread of the coronavirus, they should prioritize rapid re-housing for people living outside, using Emergency Solutions Grant and Community Development Block Grant funding included in the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, and potential funding in future federal relief packages.