Sheltering the Homeless During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Key considerations in identifying potential emergency shelters for the homeless plus examples of what other communities are doing to provide shelters.

Apr 1, 2020 | BLOG POST

Local governments have experience setting up temporary shelters in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Whether it is a hurricane, tornado, flood, wildfire, or some other similar event, we generally know when the threat will occur, when we can begin recovery, what areas will be affected, and who is impacted. Resources can be deployed strategically, and shelters can be designated relatively quickly to help those in need. Most localities have emergency management plans to establish public shelters in large open-space facilities such as public school buildings, sports arenas, and temporary structures.  

Yet, in today’s environment, these sheltering plans will not manage the threat that COVID-19 presents to our communities. We cannot see the virus. We cannot know with any certainty where it will strike next or when the threat will be over. We have to find ways to contain the spread of the virus, and that requires social distancing and isolation that our current shelter plans do not address. 

So, it is imperative that local governments begin considering sheltering options that allow the community to quarantine those with COVID-19 symptoms so that medical experts can test and provide care, while also reducing the spread of the disease. This is particularly important for sheltering the homeless and making certain public home care facilities do not have rapid spread among those in their community.  

The CDC provides specific guidance on caring for the homeless, and local governments around the country are working with industries that suddenly have empty space (hotels, colleges/universities, and office buildings in particular) to establish quarantine shelters for their most vulnerable populations. The monetary cost to the local government for setting up the shelters may be reimbursable by FEMA through the state, and city/county managers should begin dialogue with the state to identify solutions that will be most effective in their community. The cost to human life and the likely spread of COVID-19 will certainly increase far greater if communities that are affected by the virus do not begin identifying quarantine shelters and having them prepared before needs escalate.  

Key considerations in identifying potential emergency shelters include: 

  1. Rooms that allow occupant to be fully isolated and quarantined (bed, bath, toilet all in one contained space).  

  1. Plans for food delivery to the facility so that the individual is quarantined for a full two weeks. 

  1. Location near medical facility/hospital is ideal so as to maintain better logistical access to health workers in the event urgent care is required. 

  1. Security must be maintained to assure isolation and quarantine orders are maintained.  

Below are a few examples of what other communities are doing to provide shelters. Share your own plans with us on ICMA-Connect so we can all learn from each other! 

  • Part of California’s $150 million assistance package includes paying for hotel rooms and travel trailers to serve as local shelters. 

  • Hennepin County, Minnesota (the most populous county in Minnesota), moved 130 homeless in high-risk category into hotels.

  • Dallas, Texas, reserved 50 hotel rooms in anticipation of the need for quarantined shelters.

  • San Francisco placed homeless who tested positive for COVID-19 into local hotels.

  • Boston coordinated with Suffolk University Boston to secure one of its 172 room dorms for future city needs and will manage the facility in partnership with one of its community non-profit partners serving the homeless. 

  • Toronto, Ontario, Canada, has acquired hotels and residential buildings as part of its homelessness response to COVID-19, including five hotels with another five in the process of being secured and two vacant rental buildings are also in the process of being acquired, and 50 permanent housing units have been identified.

For additional COVID-19 information, visit ICMA’s Coronavirus Resource page.


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