On March 22, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released guidance that communities should not conduct “sweeps” of encampments—groupings of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, sometimes living in tents or makeshift housing—if there are no available housing or shelter options for the people living in them. The CDC instead recommends that communities provide hygiene facilities and materials to combat the spread of the coronavirus and help people living in encampments maintain sufficient space.
There are initial indications that some cities are not following the CDC guidance and are continuing to use law enforcement to sweep encampments—forcing people living there to disperse, usually discard possessions, and find somewhere else to sleep. Evidence shows how this practice can put people living in encampments at even greater risk and how communities can better help people experiencing unsheltered homelessness during the pandemic.
Why sweeps are dangerous during the pandemic
People experiencing unsheltered homelessness are at a higher risk of contracting and developing serious symptoms of COVID-19 than people who are housed. Past research on and experience with infectious diseases indicate that people experiencing housing instability, and mobility in general, could be more vulnerable to COVID-19.
These risks are even greater for individuals experiencing homelessness, particularly for people living in encampments. Studies show higher rates of tuberculosis and hepatitis A among people experiencing homelessness than among people who are housed. These higher infection rates are in part caused by the mobility of people experiencing homelessness and their limited access to medical treatment and resources.
Because it is more likely that people living in encampments will contract COVID-19, continued sweeps increase the chances of spreading the disease from within encampments to wherever people are dispersed.
Additionally, encampments form in part because people congregate around access to resources and services. Disrupting encampments can break the connection between people experiencing homelessness and service providers, which could limit their access to available resources and information on staying safe during the pandemic.
What cities should do instead
Provide hygiene facilities and materials
The CDC recommends that cities ensure encampments with more than 10 people have access to restrooms or portable toilets and to hygiene materials, such as handwashing stations, soap, and supplies to dry their hands.
Cities are following this CDC guidance, as well as guidance from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and are setting up services at or near encampments: Seattle added trash pickup services for 12 encampments across the city, Cleveland installed 6 handwashing stations and distributed hygiene packets to people experiencing homelessness, San Francisco deployed 30 handwashing stations across the city that complement their “Pit Stop” public restrooms, and DC is installing 17 handwashing stations near encampments and service areas.
Help people access housing or, if necessary, help people spread out within encampments
The best way to protect people experiencing homelessness from contracting and spreading COVID-19 is to help them access a home. In the absence of that option, CDC guidance recommends that people living in encampments create more space between tents (at least 12-by-12 feet of space per person). In practice, this might be more difficult for some encampments, depending on how long they have been in place, their current layout, and natural geographic barriers.
Map encampments to track people and resource needs
Mapping the location of encampments, and the people living there, can be critical to helping communities prioritize services where the need is greatest and implement effective contact tracing. Outreach workers can go to these encampments and provide early screening and lifesaving medical treatment, allowing service providers to monitor the health and well-being of specific people in an encampment who may be at greater risk.
Mapping encampments also allows outreach workers to give communities information about the pandemic, including updates on the disease’s spread in their area, guidance on how to stay safe if there is a local outbreak, and how to take care of themselves and their loved ones if they get sick.
These efforts are part of a broader framework for responding to homelessness and COVID-19. Other goals for communities are to strategically use resources, increase housing stability, and prevent increases in homelessness caused by the economic impacts of COVID-19. Treating people in encampments in the most humane ways possible, getting them the materials and help they need, and trying to stop the spread of COVID-19 within encampments and among the broader community are critical to ensuring people experiencing unsheltered homelessness can stay safe during this public health crisis.
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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Co-hosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.