According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, an estimated 550,000 people experienced homelessness on any given night in 2018. Of those, approximately 67 percent were individuals with the remainder (33 percent) represented families with children. Each year, counties invest nearly $11 billion in housing and community development, with local governments playing a key role in housing affordability, community planning, land use and zoning. Counties also invest heavily in housing supportive services for individuals with disabilities, veterans and those experiencing homelessness.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, practicing social distancing and cleaning your hands often are among the precautions the population at large can take towards protecting themselves against COVID-19. Following these guidelines, however, can prove particularly challenging for people experiencing homelessness, many of whom may not have consistent access to cleaning products and running water. Unhoused individuals may also be less likely to access health services, more likely to suffer from an undiagnosed pre-existing condition and are unable to shelter in place and/or self-quarantine. Controlling the spread of COVID-19 within unhoused populations is a critical undertaking for communities across the country.
Testing and Outreach for Homeless Populations
A key component of addressing an outbreak is accurately capturing the burden of disease. It is critical that outreach and testing efforts include unhoused populations.
Fulton County, Ga.
The Atlanta Continuum of Care, with input from the Fulton County Public Health Department, has created a triage-screening tool to be utilized by shelters and housing programs to adapt and update their shelter management strategies in response to COVID-19. The tool aims to identify symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals in congregate shelter sites. In addition, new measures to increase testing and isolation of homeless individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 are underway.
Harris County, Texas
The Harris County Office of Emergency Management has partnered with homeless shelters and rehabilitation centers to help identify unhoused individuals with COVID-19. The Open Door Mission, a faith- and evidence-based recovery and rehabilitation program and facility, is among one of the key partners in this effort. A Harris County clinic site has been placed at the Mission and nine beds have been leased to the county to support individuals in recovery.
Housing Homeless Populations
Due to poor living conditions and low access to healthcare, individuals experiencing homelessness are known to be at higher risk for contracting illness with known community spread. Housing these individuals is a key component of a comprehensive approach toward addressing the COVID-19 outbreak.
Addressing the needs of individuals experiencing homelessness will remain a critical component to mitigating the short- and long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In times of crisis, counties remain among the leading champions and advocates for residents and communities. As the outbreak unfolds, it is important that counties continue to serve as resources for one another.