Keeping homeless clients safe and slowing the spread of COVID-19 has forced homeless shelter providers to make a lot of changes. Some of these new approaches have been very effective and may continue being used after the health crisis has passed.
There have been improvements in providing shelter because of social distancing requirements.
The most visible strategy has been using hotels and motels to shelter homeless people. Efforts have also been made to improve access to the internet for people experiencing homelessness. The pandemic has also shined a light on some structural weaknesses in the shelter system, such as relying heavily on volunteers and high turnover among frontline staff.
Hotel and Motels Filling the Gap
Many state and local governments have experience with hotel vouchers for people who are homeless. This strategy is most common for cold weather shelter and to house people after natural disasters. The State of Vermont, for example, has provided “cold weather” motel vouchers since at least 2012. On nights when temperatures dip below freezing, homeless Vermonters can get a voucher to stay at a motel.
Hotels and motels allow people to self-quarantine, whether because of exposure to COVID-19 or being in an at-risk group. Groups at high risk of serious illness from COVID-19 include seniors, people with disabilities, and people with chronic lung or heart conditions. A large portion of homeless people belong to these high risk groups. Studies have also shown that when homeless people are able to self-quarantine, it has slowed the spread of COVID-19 in the community.
Hotel rooms also help stabilize the living situation for people experiencing homelessness. They can self-quarantine in a secure room with a private bathroom. They have access to television and the internet, and can charge their phones and devices. Services like meal delivery, healthcare outreach and mental health counseling can be easily provided.
Many hotels have closed or seen reduced business during the pandemic. Voucher programs help keep hotel rooms full when travel has been restricted because of the pandemic. This has helped state and local governments negotiate with hotel operators to quickly house many vulnerable people.
Voucher programs do have some limitations, though. Many hotels are reluctant to provide lodging to homeless people, or the vouchers may not pay the full cost of the room. In rural areas with few hotels or motels, you may have to travel pretty far to find one that will accept a voucher. Motel vouchers are also more expensive than operating a traditional homeless shelter.
Cities and states have also been encouraged to use hotels for homeless shelter because FEMA will reimburse 100% these costs. FEMA funding will only be available as long as there is a declared disaster. States will have to use other funding to continue these programs over the long term.
Early in the pandemic, the State of Connecticut managed to relocate many of its homeless residents into hotels and motels. Many other states also began paying for hotels and motels to shelter homeless residents as the pandemic wore on through 2020. Other cities and states expanded existing motel voucher programs. Many of these programs were funded by the CARES Act and more recent relief funding passed in December.
Some states and cities have begun purchasing hotels and motels instead of just renting rooms. As the pandemic goes on, it is cheaper to purchase and operate motel properties than to continue paying rent. Once the health crisis is over, these properties can be rehabilitated and used as transitional or permanent housing. Many have kitchenettes, or can be renovated to include cooking areas.
California and Oregon have created statewide programs to purchase hotels and motels that can meet the needs of homeless people during and beyond the pandemic. California’s Homekey program has supported the purchase of about 6,000 units. The governor has asked for more funding to continue the program in 2021 and 2022.
Oregon’s Turnkey program was originally created to provide housing to migrant farmworkers in the state’s eastern agricultural areas. Oregon expanded the program, with the goal of buying up to 20 underused hotels and providing housing for up to 2,000 people.
The City of Austin saw a large increase in its homeless population even before the pandemic. Austin has shifted some funding from its police budget, in conjunction with bond funding, to help purchase motels for homeless shelters. The city intends to rehabilitate the properties and use them going forward to meet its affordable housing commitments. It will use funding from Austin Public Health for ongoing operations and services.
Hotels and motels provide communities with a chance to fill one piece of their long term affordable housing puzzle. These properties are already zoned for temporary occupancy. They provide central locations for providing services that benefit homeless residents, while allowing residents privacy and dignity. Buying and fixing up these properties is also less expensive than building new shelters.
Staying Connected During a Pandemic
The pandemic has forced many offices to close to the public and rely on phone, internet, and video communications. Applications are online, classes are held by Zoom calls, and doctors can be reached by telemedicine services. Mobile phones, laptops, and tablets have been essential tools to connect people with critical services and support networks.
Most people experiencing homelessness have mobile phones. Almost all states provide free cell phones to homeless residents. This service is supported by the federal Lifeline assistance program. The program helps low-income people stay connected with phone service. Its goal is to ensure that all Americans are able to connect to jobs, family, and emergency services.
People experiencing homelessness depend heavily on their cell phones. They not only use them to make calls, send texts, and stay connected with family and friends. They also use their cell phones to apply for emergency housing, find jobs, and access healthcare.
But you need more than a phone to have access. You need to connect to the internet, and you need to keep the phone charged. Before the pandemic, connecting and charging were pretty challenging for people without a place to call home, but they could get by using public hotspots and charging locations.
Since the pandemic, though, the public places where homeless people stay connected and charge devices are mostly closed. Libraries and other public buildings have been closed in many communities. Cafes and fast food restaurants are also closed to in-person dining in many places.
Researchers with the nonprofit Rand Corporation spent time working with homeless veterans in Los Angeles. They noticed how the pandemic made it much more difficult for homeless people to stay connected without libraries and other public places to charge their phones and find free WiFi.
Some homeless drop-in centers in the Los Angeles area offer free charging services. Homeless clients are often reluctant to use these services though, because they have to drop phones off to be picked up several hours later. This means the clients are left without a phone through the middle of the day.
There is also an underground economy for phone charging in many larger cities, with $2 the typical charging rate. This is a lot of money for someone living on the street, especially when it typically only costs about $1 a year to charge a phone at home.
Better WiFi/internet access in shelter settings. Pandemic forced many to work remotely, but also doing school remotely. Homeless children at a huge disadvantage. It’s one thing to get laptop/tablet donations, but no good if you cannot connect to the internet.
The pandemic has also resulted in school closures, with students doing their classes through remote learning. Children in family shelters are at a severe disadvantage with remote learning. Even if they can get a laptop or a tablet, many shelters do not have full connectivity.
New York City has faced challenges meeting the pledge of Mayor Bill DeBlasio to connect all the city’s homeless shelters to the internet. The City contracted with two large cable providers to do the work, which has gone very slowly. Because it was urgent to connect children with their school classes, some nonprofit shelter providers took it on themselves to provide WiFi in their buildings. They were able to provide internet service to their residents more quickly and at a lower cost than going through the city. Instead of running cable into every room, they installed WiFi routers in the hallways that would serve two or three rooms each.
How can local governments make it easier for people experiencing homelessness to stay connected? The Rand researchers suggested cities find ways to provide free WiFi access zones and public charging options.
Many cities support free WiFi access zones in public spaces. The needs exposed by the pandemic may encourage more cities to do this. Public access WiFi is especially important during the pandemic, when many government offices are closed to the public. People need a connection in order to get licenses, complete applications, and access other public services.
As the pandemic continues to show, access to public charging stations would greatly improve the ability of homeless people to access services and find housing. New York City has replaced public pay phones throughout its five boroughs with the LinkNYC communication network. These are kiosks with fast, free public WiFi. People can make calls and charge devices. It has a tablet to access city services, maps and directions. Some retailers in Los Angeles have also installed public charging stations, but many have been closed during the pandemic.
The Pandemic Shows the Value of Frontline Workers
Staffing is one of the biggest challenges faced by homeless shelter and service providers during the pandemic. The shelter system relies heavily on volunteers, many of whom are older. Shelters have had to recruit younger volunteers and rely more on their paid staff.
With all the extra demands posed by the pandemic, shelters are having a hard time recruiting and keeping frontline workers. Case managers, outreach workers, and shelter staff are needed now more than ever. But these are high stress positions and people in them are at high risk of burnout. These jobs also do not pay very much.
Despite these challenges, improved street outreach has helped get many people experiencing homelessness into shelter and stable housing. Cities around the country are now working to help shelter providers expand their outreach. An Atlanta, Georgia, program now provides homeless outreach training to public safety officers working in the business district. Atlanta has also improved homeless outreach on its public transit system.
Serving our most vulnerable neighbors without homes is challenging in the best of times, and even harder during this health crisis. The pandemic has forced homeless shelter and service providers to make many changes to keep staff, residents, and the community safe. Many of these changes have improved the prospects for homeless residents, and many states and cities are looking at these new practices to reduce homelessness going forward.