On March 18, a new Building Bridges blog series was launched to share solutions from other communities and highlight key short-term responses as a result of COVID-19 that could be transformed into long-term interventions to address the pre-existing conditions of housing instability and homelessness. The blog series has covered eviction prevention; funding distribution and flexibility; shelter capacity; information sharing; evaluation and performance; conversion of hotel leases to permanent housing; and telecommunication. In addition, the COVID-19 Hub for housing and homelessness related information was published to provide regular updates on data, news, resources and best practice information.
The ideas and strategies that have been shared in this blog series were birthed in a crisis and allowed to thrive only by use of a new lens. What might have been previously considered impractical or even impossible is now seen as smart and strategic. Last week’s blog post discussed another revelation from COVID-19: housing is healthcare. While housing has always been essential to individual health, the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 has also driven home the vital role housing plays in ensuring public health.
This week’s blog post marks a shift in the blog series from the realm of strategy to a blueprint for action. The final intervention, introduced below, focuses on the concept of “urgency.” The COVID-19 pandemic has provided communities with this potent tool to address housing instability and homelessness. Like “housing as healthcare,” the “urgency” of addressing housing instability and homelessness is not new; but the concept of urgency has been driven home in response to COVID-19. However, how can/will/should communities transform this short-term sense into a permanent state in which they operate?
The word “urgency” is defined, simply, as the “quality or state of being urgent.” Synonyms include words like “magnitude,” “significance,” “gravity,” and “priority.” We mark emails as “urgent” to flag the need for immediate response. We go to the Urgent Care when we have an injury or illness that requires immediate attention. We toss the term around whenever we feel we are in crisis. The global impacts caused by COVID-19 has reclassified many things and ideas previously considered almost non-essential as “urgent.” In fact, it is hard to find an article about COVID-19 without the word “urgent” or “urgency” in it.
Since urgency is linked to concepts of magnitude; immediacy; and gravity, then, quantifying urgency can involve similar notions. In terms of housing instability and homelessness, we can look at the impact not having a home in the throes of a pandemic has on life expectancy. A new report released in March from a team of researchers including Dennis Culhane at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that novel coronavirus could result in the hospitalization of more than 21,000 people (or 4.3%) of the homeless population across the United States. The population experiencing homelessness is both especially vulnerable to, and at a higher risk of, exposure to the novel coronavirus. Even before COVID-19, the lack of housing negatively impacted the health and well-being of people experiencing homelessness, many of whom have underlying medical conditions which only get worse when sleeping outside or in congregate settings. Using a similar model from the research report with a worst-case scenario of 40% exposure rate in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, 89 individuals experiencing homelessness will need hospitalization; 32 will need critical care; and 16 will likely die as a direct result of COVID-19. During the pandemic, communities have come to see with new eyes that having a home can be the difference between life and death.
We can also enumerate the urgency of a situation by illustrating the extent to which a problem is worsening. There are multiple metrics to consider related to housing instability and homelessness. These include calls for housing assistance; unpaid rents and/or mortgages; evictions filed; unemployment filings; and individuals falling into homelessness. Comparing metrics before and after the start of the pandemic can shed light on the urgency of the problem. Even prior to COVID-19, the number of people experiencing housing instability and homelessness in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg had already been increasing. During the past 10 months, an average of 158 new individuals became homeless every month. With negative long-term health and economic effects from the pandemic resulting in lost incomes and housing, these numbers will likely increase in the weeks, months, and years ahead.
The Eisenhower Decision Matrix is a familiar time-management tool that is used to help distinguish whether something is important and whether it is urgent. In this Matrix, urgency is considered disruptive, and forces us to be reactive. Important is defined separately as foundational guideposts or “rocks,” and includes tasks that must be accomplished to meet a larger goal and/or mission. Tasks that are “important” typically have a window of time in which they must be completed before they become “urgent.”
Tasks that are both urgent and important (i.e. a crisis) are rendered as top priority because they require immediate attention and also work towards fulfilling goals and/or mission. However, spending too much time on this group of tasks can lead to burnout. It also creates a constant state of reaction, minimizing attention for strategy. It is recommended that most time be spent on tasks that are important, but non-urgent. This involves planning and preparedness, so that when the inevitable crisis does occur, the situation can be met head on and in alignment with a stated mission and/or goals.
In the midst of the global COVID-19 outbreak, the work to address housing instability and homelessness has become an important and urgent task. We have seen examples of this in communities who have scrambled to create new protocols; secure emergency funding; and work to coordinate responses. However, maintaining this urgent/important level in the long-term is not sustainable. It also does not allow for planning and preparedness to meet the next crisis head on.
Therefore, while the COVID-19 pandemic has created a sense of urgency for communities to ensure everyone can safely “shelter-in-place,” it can and should not be a long-term state of affairs. To effectively address the deeply entrenched and connected problems of housing instability and homelessness requires that communities shift this work to an important, non-urgent status. Planning, coordination, and collaboration across multiple sectors is required. This includes integrating the new ideas and strategies evaluated during the last few months.
Next week’s blog will provide an in-depth look at a public health and economic recovery framework to help communities like Charlotte-Mecklenburg make this thoughtful shift to important, non-urgent work. This transition harnesses the momentum gained, with a renewed focus on system-level strategies.
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.