Urban Wire Winter Is Here. With COVID-19 Limiting Shelter Capacity, What Will It Mean for People Experiencing Homelessness?
Samantha Batko
Display Date

An exhibition hall turned homeless shelter during COVID-19

A looming eviction crisis is rightfully garnering a lot of attention: millions of renter households are at risk of eviction because of COVID-19. But another crisis is unfolding that’s received much less attention: homeless shelters are closed or operating at limited capacity.

In the winter, communities typically expand their shelter capacity through hypothermia or warming programs to bring people in from the cold. These programs are essential for preventing people from dying outside. This year, communities and the people experiencing homelessness already are struggling with diminished shelter capacity and, for large portions of the US, winter is already here.

COVID-19 is limiting congregate shelters’ capacity

Early in the pandemic, communities saw rapid spread in homeless shelters, particularly in congregate settings, where people shared living and sleeping spaces, sometimes in beds, cots, or bunks that were very close to one another. In Boston, more than one in three of the people residing in a large congregate shelter tested positive for COVID-19. And San Francisco paused shelter entries in late March to enact public health strategies that would limit capacity. These cities were not alone; shelters are closed or have been temporarily closed in jurisdictions across the country. Some closed to implement public health strategies, and others closed because of diminished staff and volunteers.

Local responses haven’t been enough

One major response to shelter concerns during the pandemic was for jurisdictions to secure hotel rooms to provide people experiencing homelessness safe, temporary housing. This strategy helped isolate people who were symptomatic and provided shelter to people in high-risk groups, such as older people or those with preexisting medical conditions that could make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

Efforts to secure hotel rooms were necessary, but they couldn’t meet the needs of all people currently experiencing homelessness and haven’t been sufficient to offset the loss of congregate shelter capacity. In Washington, DC, shelters are operating at about 60 percent of prepandemic capacity. In San Francisco, adult shelters are operating at about 50 percent of prepandemic capacity (PDF). And throughout California, hotels are closing.

Where do we go from here?

The simplest way to deal with a lack of shelter capacity is to quickly house people. Rent assistance resources from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act could help rapidly re-house people experiencing homelessness in shelters, hotels, and unsheltered locations. It would give them a place to live safe from COVID-19 and the cold.

As communities work to house people, they will also need to address the gaps in shelter by keeping hotels open or by expanding shelter in other ways. Some jurisdictions are already purchasing hotels to retain noncongregate shelter options or to eventually convert them to permanent housing. One silver lining is that people experiencing homelessness dislike congregate shelter facilities (PDF), citing lack of privacy, rigid rules, and harm to already marginalized groups, including people of color and LGBTQ+ persons. Expanding options could signal a shift away from the congregate model to the benefit of people who need shelter.

But right now, there aren’t enough shelter options of any kind. In the absence of shelter, people will be forced to live outside. Already, sanctioned “safe parking” and “safe sleeping” sites are gaining prevalence. A wave of evictions would prove disastrous, likely necessitating the growth of these types of strategies. With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction moratorium ending at the end of December and ongoing negotiations over a relief package that may or may not provide rent assistance resources, communities must brace for a potential influx of people who will have nowhere to go.

Tags COVID-19
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center