BEYOND THE NUMBERS
As policymakers negotiate the next economic relief package, they must provide more funding for homelessness service and prevention programs. An additional $11.5 billion would help to ensure that people experiencing homelessness can access shelters that can keep them safe from the pandemic and to reduce the number of people losing their homes in the first place.
On any given day, nearly 570,000 people experiencing homelessness are staying in shelters or living on the street, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. Many of them are unaccompanied youth or young adults, children, seniors, or people with disabling conditions. The typical help for people experiencing homelessness makes social distancing difficult at best, and hygiene facilities like public bathrooms have become scarcer as businesses and public buildings have closed or restricted entry due to the pandemic.
Communities are adopting strategies to enable people experiencing homelessness and program staff to stay safe as the pandemic continues and, in some areas, escalates. Innovations that increase social distancing and that replace shelter space with hotel rooms and other non-congregate facilities have proven effective in protecting people from the virus, but these efforts are costly to implement and maintain. Communities have also increased street outreach efforts to give people personal hygiene supplies, food, and testing.
Many communities have successfully implemented new practices and policies to reduce the spread of COVID-19. For example, Pine Street Inn, which operates several shelters in Boston, recently reported that the rate of residents testing positive for COVID-19 fell from 36 percent earlier in the pandemic to 2 percent after it implemented non-congregate shelter options, social distancing, and other measures (including masks and handwashing) and spread residents out across more facilities. But these practices — along with re-housing — are costly, requiring more space, equipment, and staff, and programs need additional funds to implement them.
Clearly, the pandemic and its economic effects will last longer and be more severe than many had hoped. Without additional funds for homelessness services and prevention providers to implement guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and connect individuals to safe housing and shelter options quickly, some communities will struggle to remain successful in controlling the spread of the virus. In addition, cities in which the virus is spreading will have trouble implementing the changes needed in their homelessness services systems to help reduce the risk for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. In either case, the results will likely be devastating, with higher infection and death rates due to underfunding in this area.
Additional funds will also enable communities to direct resources toward correcting racial inequities that the pandemic brought to the forefront. Past policy decisions and lack of investment in communities of color have in large measure created disparities that put people of color at higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19, losing their jobs, and having trouble making ends meet during the sharp economic downturn. People of color are over-represented in the homeless services system, which makes it essential to dedicate resources toward helping local decisionmakers implement strategies to reduce homelessness in neighborhoods with significant racial disparities in COVID-19 infection rates or job or income losses.
Addressing the needs of people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic through re-housing, shelter reconfiguration, expansion of beds and hygiene services, and adherence to CDC guidance would cost $15.5 billion, University of Pennsylvania researchers and their partners estimated in May. The CARES Act of March provided $4 billion. Policymakers should provide the additional $11.5 billion in the next relief package.
Homelessness is one of the various housing challenges that low-income families may face during this crisis. Policymakers also need to make significant investments in emergency rental assistance to keep people with low incomes in their housing and prevent homelessness, in Housing Choice Vouchers to help households that need more than temporary assistance to stay stably housed, and in protecting people who are currently receiving federal rental assistance. Policymakers must tailor their next steps to address the complexity of the need and help low-income renters and people experiencing homelessness avoid evictions, continued homelessness, or other preventable hardships.