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Leveraging COVID-19 Funding to Fight Homelessness, Help Marginalized Communities

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The CARES Act’s $4 billion for housing under its Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) program, along with its other COVID-19 relief, can go far in serving people experiencing or at risk of homelessness during this crisis. But how far it goes depends on any steps that states and communities take to not only address the current crisis but correct longstanding inequities that perpetuate homelessness, particularly among people of color. That’s why we and our partners at the National Alliance to End Homelessness created a framework to help CARES Act recipients and service providers make strategic housing decisions to help marginalized communities and extremely low-income people.

To be sure, the CARES Act funding will not help safely house everyone experiencing or at risk of homelessness. To fill some of the gaps, the House-passed Heroes Act called for substantially more funding for homelessness services, prevention, and rental assistance. Our framework will help decision-makers prioritize the funding they have from the CARES Act and that they receive from any future legislation.

Homelessness assistance providers are used to working in cash-strapped environments and doing more with less, often needing to make life-and-death decisions about who receives shelter, housing, and other services and who doesn’t. The COVID-19 pandemic has further stretched resources for public and private service providers, which are responding in real time by implementing social distancing protocols in congregate settings, conducting outreach to people in encampments, and creating non-congregate options for shelter or isolation and quarantine for people at high risk of contracting the virus. These providers must also prepare for a greater need for homelessness prevention resources as the economic crisis makes it harder for many struggling households to pay rent, increasing housing instability and placing more families at risk of homelessness.

CARES Act funding will provide important resources to address these challenges — but only if communities use them wisely and target the populations most affected, especially those already facing longstanding economic and other inequities. That includes African Americans, who even before the pandemic comprised 40 percent of those experiencing homelessness but just 13 percent of the U.S. population, and LGBTQ+ people, who experience homelessness or housing instability at rates twice as high as their share of the population, according to one study.

The framework incorporates evidence-based practices to prevent or end homelessness and applies them in the context of the public health and economic crises. Further, it sequences recommended actions so that communities can focus on the right activities at the right time while also building toward longer-term goals like economic recovery and preparedness for future public health crises. But the framework’s most important aspect is its justice and equity approach. It’s designed to guide decision-makers in the states, counties, and cities that receive the CARES Act’s supplemental ESG and Community Development Block Grant funds in serving marginalized populations that the pandemic and economic fallout have disproportionately affected.

The framework focuses on five key recommendations:

  1. Services for Unsheltered People. COVID-19 has provided the clearest indication that housing and health care are integrally related. The health of unsheltered people is much worse than that of sheltered people, putting them at greater risk of getting sick. The framework suggests that CARES Act funding recipients should prioritize getting people who are currently in unsheltered locations into safe shelter options and permanent housing as quickly as possible.
  2. Shelter. The immediate priority is to use CARES Act and Federal Emergency Management Agency funding to reconfigure shelter space according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for social distancing, quarantine, isolation, and medical care. But service providers, policymakers, and other stakeholders must also begin discussing safer and more effective alternatives to large congregate shelters. The framework suggests that communities initiate planning and feasibility modeling to replace congregate sites with safe and sustainable options, including ones with private rooms and bathrooms, for people who need temporary shelter.
  3. Housing. Recipients should use CARES Act funds to quickly re-house as many people experiencing homelessness as possible, focusing on housing placement for people in temporary non-congregate or overflow spaces that will eventually close so that people don’t wind up back on the street. People experiencing homelessness and those who are exiting the justice, health care, or other systems must also have access to more affordable and supportive housing options – both to protect the health of vulnerable people and communities, and to prevent an increase in homelessness as institutions release more people due to pandemic-related concerns.
  4. Prevention and Diversion. Communities must implement robust homelessness prevention and diversion strategies to reduce the number of people entering the homeless system due to COVID-19. Communities should use CARES Act funds to scale up successful diversion programs that help families avoid shelters through problem-solving, mediation, or cash assistance. Homelessness prevention resources, like paying rent or utility arrears to keep a household in their unit, should first target extremely low-income households, which are most likely to be evicted and become homeless, before moving to higher-income households.
  5. Improving Systems for the Future. Decisions that states and communities make now will affect their ability to reduce or end homelessness in the future. Targeting resources to communities most affected, advancing evidence-based policies and program designs — such as the “housing first” approach — and using a decision-making process rooted firmly in racial justice and equity can help build stronger housing and homelessness systems for the longer term.