Homelessness Support During the Spread of COVID-19

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Cities across the United States, from Burlington, Vermont to Los Angles, California, are being nimble to stop the spread of COVID-19 in their communities by taking proactive measures to ensure individuals experiencing homelessness are protected during this crisis. However, recommendations to exercise social distancing and to shelter in place are nearly impossible for those in close living conditions, such as shelters or encampments. This is also true for roughly 4.4 million people who are living doubled up with relatives and friends because of housing instability.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has urged city leaders not to clear encampments unless individual housing units are available. Clearing encampments disconnect individuals from service providers and increases the potential risk for the spread of the virus. Instead, the CDC recommends tents are placed at least 12 feet apart and hygiene facilities are available, accessible and well-equipped. Cities are not only adhering to these recommendations from the CDC but are also being strategic and thoughtful in their own approach to protect their most vulnerable residents.

Over the last month, the National League of Cities has observed cities addressing homelessness in four distinct ways. Here are a few lessons your city may benefit from implementing.

1. Unveiling COVID-19 Emergency Response Plans to Address Homelessness

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young released a COVID-19 Emergency Response Plan for individuals experiencing homelessness in Baltimore, Maryland. Mayor Young’s plan directs the Mayor’s Office of Homelessness Services to commit to five critical interventions: emergency shelter assessment and testing, hospital discharge practices, isolation sites, expanding capacity for social distancing in shelters and outreach to people experiencing unsheltered homelessness.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the city’s Homeless Service Division has outlined actionable steps as to how the city will prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the homeless population and connect individuals experiencing homelessness with COVID-19 to resources, assistance and a safe place to isolate themselves.

2. Increasing and Introducing New Shelter Operations

In Portland, Oregon, the Joint Office of Homeless Services, a partnership between the Multnomah County and the City of Portland, in response to COVID-19, has kept adult winter shelters open, expanded the use of motel vouchers, added shelter options in public spaces, and provided funding for shelters and outreach teams to purchase gear.

In Greensboro, North Carolina, the city has partnered with local agencies to provide a shelter-in-place solution for residents experiencing homelessness at the Greensboro Sportsplex, a city-owned facility.  The sportsplex adheres to both HUD and CDC spacing recommendations and has on-site, around the clock staffing. The city has taken additional measures to decrease the spread of COVID-19 by developing a dedicated, off-site space for individuals who need to be quarantined from the general population at the sportsplex and has required all individuals entering the facility to undergo a screening process to check for COVID-19 symptoms.

3. Working with the Private and Non-Profit Sectors

Under the leadership of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the City of Chicago has introduced new measures to increase the capacity to shelter individuals experiencing homelessness. The city has a new agreement with the YMCA of Metro Chicago that will increase access to emergency shelters at select YMCA’s during the Stay-at-Home Order.

In Little Rock, Arkansas, the City of Little Rock is accepting grant applications from existing homelessness shelters and homelessness day centers. The grants will assist homelessness shelters and day centers to purchase emergency supplies for sanitation, safety and public health purposes.

4. Taking Regional Approach to Homelessness

The City of Boulder, the City of Longmont and Boulder County have partnered together to open a COVID-19 Recovery Center (CRC), a non-medical facility that assists individuals through their illness.   Opened on March 20, the CRC houses individuals experiencing homelessness, from Boulder and Longmont, who appear to show symptoms of COVID-19, need further testing and/or recovery for COVID-19 symptoms. The recovery center is staffed on-site by CRC staff and Medical Reserve Corps to provide supportive check-ins and ensure individuals have access to showers, laundry, internet and three meals per day.

In Fresno, California, the City of Fresno and Fresno County have worked together to secure 300 beds for its homelessness population and have partnered to increase its supply of wash stations and hygiene kits.

Expanding their current strategic approach to homelessness, in Seattle, Washington, the City of Seattle and King County have increased response through shelter expansion. This expansion increased all shelter capacity and de-intensifying shelters, created recovery spaces for individuals who do not require urgent care and created isolation spaces for individuals affected by COVID-19 or suspected of having COVID-19.

What is next for cities?

Local response is and remains essential to contain the spread of COVID-19, and Congress and the Administration have taken note. Last week, Congress passed and the President signed the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The legislation provides $4 billion for homelessness assistance grants in support of local efforts to prevent infection and mortality from the pandemic among the unsheltered and the sheltered homeless population.

One-half of the amount would go to state and local governments that receive Emergency Solutions Grants under the existing formula within 30 days. The other half would, within 90 days, be distributed pursuant to a new formula. This funding could be used to reimburse for costs already incurred and would come with new flexibilities with respect to match and planning requirements, shelter amount caps, and habitability and environmental reviews.

With this new funding allocated to homelessness, cities can continue to be strategic, nimble and thoughtful in ensuring their most vulnerable populations are able to shelter in place safely.

About the Authors:

Jim Brooks smallJim Brooks is the director for housing & community development at the National League of Cities. Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.
Lauren_Lowery_smallLauren Lowery is the program director for housing & community development at the National League of Cities.