On March 18, a new Building Bridges blog series was launched to share solutions from other communities and highlight key interventions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week’s blog post focused on funding distribution and flexibility; and included information from the CARES Act. In addition to addressing the pre-existing issues of housing instability and homelessness, organizations are also adapting daily to the challenge of protecting the health of clients and staff. These changes are critical to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus and ensure that residents have safe, stable shelter or housing.
Communities are taking steps to ensure that people experiencing homelessness have a safe space to “shelter in place” and, if needed, isolate or quarantine. Some have delayed (or stopped altogether) sweeps of homeless encampments. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has released policy recommendations about housing people who are currently experiencing homelessness (including in a hotel or vehicle) for the duration of the pandemic; stopping the enforcement of laws prohibiting resting and sheltering in a public space; and issuing a moratorium on vehicle ticketing, towing, and impoundment. In addition, the governor of Connecticut issued an executive order to provide or arrange for non-congregant housing for people at risk of or currently experiencing homelessness.
This new Building Bridges series looks at community responses to COVID-19 using a prospicient lens: What short-term, community responses can become long-term, systemic solutions? Which immediate interventions can effectively and efficiently address the structural issues that lead to housing instability and homelessness? What “new thing” can evolve into “business as usual?” And what is needed to create healthy, stable communities permanently?
This week’s blog post is dedicated to how communities have expanded shelter capacity in response to COVID-19.
CURRENT STATUS OF SHELTER CAPACITY EXPANSION EFFORTS
In order to comply with CDC and local public health guidelines, it is estimated that emergency shelter capacity across the United States has been reduced by approximately 50%. Using the same methodology with local data, this reduction would result in a need for more than 750 new emergency shelter beds to adequately shelter and quarantine individuals experiencing homelessness in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Below are examples of how some communities are expanding shelter capacity:
According to 2019 Point-in-Time Count data, 151,278 people experienced homelessness on one night. Of that total, 72% (108,432 people) are in unsheltered locations. California became the first state to use FEMA funding to cover shelter expenses in response to COVID-19. On April 3, the governor announced that California had secured approximately 7,000 hotel rooms to shelter people experiencing homelessness. This effort is part of a new, statewide program called Project Roomkey, which has a goal of obtaining at least 15,000 units in areas where large numbers of people sleep on the streets in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. In addition to hotel rooms, other services are provided including cleaning, laundry, security and support staff. In addition, some hotels have a partnership with Chef José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen to provide three meals a day.
New Orleans, Louisiana
There were 1,179 total people experiencing homelessness in the New Orleans Continuum of Care (CoC) on the night of the 2019 Point-in-Time Count. Of this total, 64% (749 people) were in shelters and 36% (430 people) were in unsheltered locations. Similar to the example of California, FEMA dollars are being used to partner with hotels to shelter people experiencing homelessness. In fact, one hotel posted information on the FEMA website in order to be identified as a potential site, filling vacant rooms that would otherwise go unused. New Orleans CoC is also applying lessons learned from the intake process it used during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Chicago’s Continuum of Care had 5,290 people experiencing homelessness on one night in 2019. Of that total, 76% (4,030 people) people were sheltered homeless, whereas 24% (1,260) people experienced unsheltered homelessness. The City of Chicago reports that it has reached agreements with multiple hotel operators to provide more than 1,000 hotel rooms for quarantine and isolation purposes. Rooms are targeted to people who are exposed to or who have become mildly ill from COVID-19 but who are not yet in need of hospital care. In addition, the City has partnered with the YMCA to create additional shelter capacity by adding as many as 900 beds across various sites.
According to 2019 Point-in-Time Count data, there were 4,015 people experiencing homelessness on one night in the Portland area Continuum of Care. Of that total, 49% (1,978 people) were in sheltered locations and 51% (2,037 people) were in unsheltered locations. Portland is using the City-owned Portland Exposition Center or “Expo Center” (which was closed as a result of COVID-19) to house individuals who require quarantine space because they may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus but are not yet symptomatic. Portland had previously used The Expo Center as an emergency shelter during the summer of 2019 to temporarily house an unexpected increase in migrant families seeking asylum. Portland continues to use shelters for individuals who have symptoms; are awaiting test results; or have tested positive for COVID-19.
The Worcester City and County Continuum of Care had a total of 1,593 people experiencing homelessness on the night of the 2019 Point-in-Time Count. Of that total, 89% (1,424 people) experienced homelessness in sheltered locations and 11% (169 people) experienced homelessness in unsheltered locations. The city of Worcester has partnered with a local shelter provider to use a local high school as one of several satellite sites to temporarily house people experiencing homelessness. The school has designated separate areas for discrete populations, as well as sleeping and daytime activities. Worcester Public Schools is providing three shifts of custodians to clean the area; the nutrition department is delivering breakfast and lunch. Evening meals are donated from the community. The temporary shelter also has onsite 24/7 security using members of the Worcester Police Department.
LONG-TERM VIEW ON SHELTER CAPACITY
Using worst case scenario estimates for exposure rate, the twelve month price tag is at least $23M to adequately shelter and quarantine people experiencing homelessness in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. This cost estimate does not include the number of people who may also lose their housing as result of economic factors related to COVID-19. The number also does not include any costs associated with hospitalization or medical treatment.
Additional funding will also be needed for the coming months and, quite possibly, years to address the long-term economic consequences from COVID-19. Like any economic crisis, COVID-19 has and will continue to disproportionately impact low-income households.
Therefore, as communities are grappling with how to care for households in crisis today, they must also look down the road to anticipate and plan to meet low-income household needs three-, six-, and twelve-months from now.
Communities, like the examples highlighted in this blog post, are developing short-term solutions that can become transformed into long-term strategies. For example, the old practice in many communities has been to give hotel vouchers for rooms on a case-by-case basis. In this example, multiple organizations approach motel operators to purchase vacant rooms, which results in duplicative efforts and often, higher prices for rooms. Ten months ago, when Los Angeles County was in the midst of clearing out a large encampment, local leaders found a different path: entering into a master lease contract with the hotel. The initial effort was successful and ultimately led to creating a new standard of practice across the county. Los Angeles County has since worked to identify at least one motel in each of the county’s eight regions that could enter into master lease agreements. In addition, contracted hotels also allow people experiencing homelessness to live in vehicles in the parking lots of the motels (including through its Safe Parking Program). The partnership allows Los Angeles County to quickly increase its shelter capacity when needed and partnering hotels have a consistent cash flow for a set number of years.
Similar partnerships and practices currently embraced by communities to increase shelter capacity in response to COVID-19 can also be used in the future. Systemic responses that leverage existing resources and strengths allow communities to develop comprehensive, sustainable responses to complex issues. Such an approach also enables communities to address both immediate needs and create structural fixes.
The COVID crisis is highlighting and exacerbating structural inequities and inefficiencies that pre-dated the pandemic. Adequately addressing emergent conditions should also mean ensuring the elimination or remediation of the permanent, underlying conditions as much as possible. Learning what works can ensure that communities exit this situation stronger and better positioned to meet the needs of their most vulnerable populations.
Future posts in this series will continue to focus on this important shift from short-term intervention to long-term implementation. Check back here each week to find out more.
Courtney LaCaria coordinates posts on the Building Bridges Blog. Courtney is the Housing & Homelessness Research Coordinator for Mecklenburg County Community Support Services. Courtney’s job is to connect data on housing instability, homelessness and affordable housing with stakeholders in the community so that they can use it to drive policy-making, funding allocation and programmatic change.