The consequences of disasters for homeless and other vulnerable people are severe. People who lack shelter are already in crisis, and a disaster can multiply their difficulties while adversely affecting their ability to cope. If the emergency response system is not ready to serve them, the response changes from efficient support to inefficient – and in some cases, harmful – crisis management. If evacuation plans do not reach people experiencing homelessness, emergency responders will spend unnecessary time in remedial searches for them. If disaster plans do not account for existing emergency shelters, those populations will have to be housed by disaster shelters. If disaster shelters have untrained staff and turn away people with mental health issues, they can force a full blown mental health crisis, with attendant demands on the medical response system.
Lack of planning for the most vulnerable populations not only adversely affects those individuals, it has systemic implications affecting response and recovery capabilities and outcomes.
Yet, plans may not make accommodations for challenges faced by people experiencing homelessness. They may be overlooked in disaster communications, left out of evacuation plans, and find themselves unwelcome or their needs unable to be addressed in mass shelters. The Planning Guide for Local Jurisdictions helps communities address this gap.
This Response Guide for Local Jurisdictions instructs communities how to strengthen their entire disaster response effort by addressing the needs of its most vulnerable community members. Using the framework of Federal Emergency Support Functions (ESF), this guide provides advice and strategies for:
As you read this guide, keep in mind that the needs of people experiencing homelessness are diverse. Homeless and vulnerable populations include individuals and families, young and old, able-bodied and disabled, working and unemployed. They include runaway youth, LGBTQ individuals, and veterans. They may have children, companions and pets for whom they are responsible and belongings they cannot lose. Some are healthy, while others suffer from chronic diseases (treated and untreated) or mental illness. They may be dependent on drugs or medication and may or may not have adequate supplies. Some may have had previous experiences with authorities and may be hesitant to come forward or engage. Many will be suffering from trauma, perhaps exacerbated by the disaster.
Prior to and immediately after a disaster, the general public will experience a flurry of notifications about the imminent disaster, potential scenarios, how to prepare, and where to go for help. They will get these messages via radio and television, through local emergency text or email messaging services, through work, schools, and other outlets. However, these messages may not reach people experiencing homelessness and other vulnerable people, for lack of access to phones, TVs, radio, computers, and services. Further, those who do get the messages may be unable to respond due to lack of transportation, resources, and other barriers.
Outreach cannot be confined to the days immediately before an actual occurrence, because some disasters (such as earthquakes or blackouts) occur without warning. It needs to occur well before a disaster – ideally on a periodic or ongoing basis. The entire general public, including people experiencing homelessness, must have a solid understanding of the actions to take in the event of any disaster.
Use your service provider network. To reach vulnerable households, rely on people who know them best. Engage your CoC in the coordination, staffing, and creation of outreach teams, messages and materials.
Rely on trusted sources. Law enforcement may be a trusted source in many communities, but this may not be the case in all segments of the community, particularly the homeless community. In reaching out to people experiencing homelessness, build teams that include trusted sources, such as service providers, outreach workers and EMTs.
Make sure disaster notifications address the full range of circumstances. When developing disaster information, from disaster preparedness education to pre-disaster warnings and disaster notifications, consider the real scenarios faced by the people in your community and make sure that the communication methods can be effective for homeless populations, especially those who are unsheltered. Distrust of authorities and systemic barriers may inhibit certain messages from having the intended impact. People who live outside need specific information about what to do in a flood or earthquake. People experiencing homelessness who have cars will need to know the evacuation routes and may also need additional help getting the fuel and funds necessary to evacuate and return to the community. People in temporary shelters might be physically safe but could require provisions for extra medications. Messages must address these circumstances in practical terms and assist people to acquire life-sustaining supplies.
Make sure disaster notifications address people’s concerns. Messages on what actions you want vulnerable populations to take must address common concerns such as care for belongings and pets and the duration of the emergency. Messages should also address concerns that law enforcement will use disaster shelters or other interactions to serve outstanding warrants or take other enforcement action.
Meet people where they are physically. Your outreach leading up to the disaster and during the response must reach the places where people experiencing homelessness reside. This means shelters, encampments, cars, motels and other locations known to your local service providers. In many communities, outreach teams are already engaging with people experiencing homelessness, in these places, face-to-face. Use those teams to communicate information about shelter options. The disaster planning process can actually be an opportunity to strengthen outreach programs. Take advantage of technologies as well – 50 percent of people experiencing homelessness have cell phones and can receive texts but remember that they may turn them on only sporadically to save battery life – phones cannot substitute for in person alerts. Make sure that you have volunteers and providers who can give warnings and notifications in the languages spoken by the local community. These warnings should be simple enough for anyone to easily remember them (e.g., use known places like food pantries and shelter locations, not an address that someone has to look up in an emergency) and, if given in the form of a hand out, should be easy to carry and weather-resistant (e.g., laminated).
Persistence and consistency is key. Keep in mind that you will have to reach out several times and in diverse ways to get the message out. People experiencing homelessness might not receive or react to early warnings because of other life threatening concerns or barriers. Make sure to update messages to reflect growing urgency about what is happening and what individuals need to do. Messaging must be consistent throughout any evacuation and sheltering stages as well. Follow-up by trusted sources, like outreach workers known to the homeless individuals and families, can minimize confusion. People also need to be told when the disaster – and danger – has passed. [See Return to Community]
People experiencing homelessness may experience many of the same challenges in an evacuation scenario as other vulnerable populations such as elderly and disabled people. As discussed under "Warnings and Notifications," they might not receive critical messages about when, where, and how to evacuate. While some may have access to cars, most will not and they may have difficulty getting to evacuation points because of health issues, mobility impairments, or lack of transportation. People may distrust authorities, have concerns about separation from their belongings, companions, and pets, or be worried about being allowed to return. These concerns are real and often based on prior experiences with authorities. Disasters are traumatic and trigger issues that can cause conflicts with emergency workers and other evacuees.
Evacuation efforts should take into account the concerns of people experiencing homelessness and the barriers they may face.
Coordinate with shelters and housing and service providers. As part of ongoing emergency preparedness activities, confirm that all shelters, transitional housing, permanent housing, and service providers have plans for evacuating their clients. The jurisdiction should have plans in place to evacuate unsheltered people experiencing homelessness and other vulnerable populations. Communities with comprehensive programs will have outreach staff that know where unsheltered people experiencing homelessness are likely to be staying. Using this knowledge, emergency staff can direct evacuation personnel to those sites. Other activities on which to incorporate shelter providers on include:
Provide evacuation options. Evacuation is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Some people experiencing homelessness have access to transportation, while others have none but can get themselves to an evacuation site if it is easily identifiable. Others have limited mobility or limited access to transportation. The evacuation plan should account for all scenarios.
Engage qualified people in the evacuation effort. Everyone working on the evacuation should have some knowledge of special needs that may be present with people experiencing homelessness and other vulnerable populations.
During response and recovery, established emergency shelters and new disaster shelters often operate at and beyond capacity. Existing shelters may experience disruptions in their services. Disaster shelters might be able to increase capacity but will fail if they lack support services for vulnerable populations. Shelters must accommodate a diverse population of formerly and newly people experiencing homelessness including single adults, families, runaway youth, LBGTQ persons, and other households. Supportive services must address the broad needs of displaced people, including physical, cognitive or behavioral issues, many of which will be exacerbated by the trauma of the disaster and the displacement. Excluding people from shelters in a disaster can have life threatening consequences for the individual and simply places greater burdens on other aspects of the response system such as emergency medical responders.
An effective response requires sufficient capacity and an array of appropriate services.
Maximize your shelter capacity. Provide resources and support needed to keep existing emergency shelters open. This may mean providing backup power, additional staff, and extra food, water, and medicine. To ensure preparedness, you should execute memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with providers that codify responsibilities. Establish disaster shelters as needed but consider alternatives such as hotel and motel vouchers, shelters in surrounding communities, and vacancies in public housing. As the need for disaster shelters wanes and people who can return home do, allow homeless and vulnerable individuals and families to stay longer in existing shelters while volunteers and community members work to identify housing solutions for them.
Engage service providers in the shelter plan. Disaster shelters will need to provide a full range of services, from basics like food service to social services, including counseling and medical care, to family support like child care and even schooling for children. Existing homeless service providers can support the disaster shelters with qualified staff as well as food and supplies. Case managers can coordinate the delivery of services and meet acute psychological and medical needs including trauma-induced episodes, substance abuse issues and drug or alcohol withdrawal.
Make disaster shelters accessible to all. The law forbids discrimination in disaster shelters. Ensure that shelter managers understand that all people are to be admitted. Provide written information on the law and how all volunteers and workers in the shelters should apply the law in practice. Consider establishing in advance a support team that can be deployed to help address various situations that arise. Train managers and intake specialists to recognize and respond appropriately to people with special needs including homeless adults, unaccompanied youth, and families with children.
Stay in touch with your shelters. As the recovery progresses, conditions in shelters will evolve and new needs will emerge such as shortages in supplies, people who need to be moved, and medical emergencies. Designate a shelter coordinator who checks in regularly with the shelters to identify and address issues.
One goal of recovery is to return people to their homes; however, the effort to repair and rebuild homes tends to overlook those who did not have permanent housing or are precariously housed before the disaster. Disasters also often force households into homelessness for the first time, as the housing market tightens and people who were economically stressed before the disaster are unable to recover from the additional losses. People who were in housing but not on the lease or deed, such as those doubled-up, do not qualify for many housing replacement resources and may have to turn to the homeless services network. The homeless services network will experience new challenges and strains on its resources due to these new individuals and families entering the system. A strategic long-term recovery process will take into account this larger homeless population and use the influx of resources and attention to housing replacement as an opportunity to transition all residents to stable housing. Use of coordinated entry systems and rapid re-housing programs are one good approach to avoiding a surge of homelessness in the community.
Give people experiencing homelessness more time. Often, the closing of disaster shelters means that homeless individuals and families have nowhere to go but to unsheltered locations. Even if they had permanent housing before the disaster, it may be gone, and they usually have not had the time or resources to search for new housing. In addition, people who lived on the streets or encampments may have lost their belongings that enabled them to sleep in these locations. Disaster shelters should stay open long enough to allow for the option of safe placements into new shelter. Communities can use the homeless infrastructure from before the disaster (established shelters and housing), but will probably have to expand that infrastructure to accommodate newly homeless persons.
Leverage new resources. The recovery will bring new resources for repair and new construction. As the community assesses its unmet needs and determines the funds needed for recovery, they should take into account the full housing need in the community, including housing for people experiencing homelessness. Include all stakeholders in the discussion including people experiencing homelessness as well as housing and service providers. As the community allocates recovery resources, they should consider dedicating funds to permanent affordable housing.
Address barriers to long-term housing solutions. An individual’s lack of identification or other documentation required can limit access to mainstream resources. Service providers should help people experiencing homelessness address these barriers to assistance and establish flexible application procedures where possible.
Establish interim housing options. The jurisdiction should maximize the number of interim housing options available and communicate these options to those who most need them. This may include working with local, state, and Federal agencies to identify vacant housing or buildings that can be converted to housing and temporary options, or mobile housing. It can also include working with neighboring jurisdictions to identify potential housing options in the vicinity.
The Recovery Guide discusses these considerations in greater detail.
A list of actions that the community should take to prepare for an inclusive disaster outreach effort
A list of actions that the community should take during the disaster to ensure that warnings and notifications reach everyone in the community
A list of actions that the community should take to prepare for an inclusive disaster evacuation process.
A list of actions that the community should take during the disaster to ensure that an evacuation is accessible everyone in the community
A list of actions that the community should take to prepare for an inclusive disaster shelter response
A list of actions that the community should take during the disaster to ensure that everyone has access to the shelter and services they need.