People experiencing homelessness are more vulnerable to an outbreak of highly communicable diseases like COVID-19. Without a permanent place to call home, people experiencing homelessness are more often exposed to potentially infected objects and people. Unsheltered persons often lack a restroom for frequent handwashing and personal hygiene and essential laundry facilities, a tremendous challenge when frequent washing is critical to prevent the spread of the disease. The problem is worse as public spaces such as libraries, cafes, or community centers are often currently closed. Emergency shelter provides some protection from the disease, but shelters commonly have tight quarters and require many people to share facilities like showers and laundry.
Crowded Spaces Spread Disease
Many shelters are underfunded and lacking staff and supply shortfalls that make it harder to maintain sanitary conditions. Adhering to the CDC shelter guidelines requiring more space between beds and more cleaning would help prevent rapid spread of the disease. But shelters have very limited space, so distancing each bed or creating improvised isolation rooms can also mean more people will be unsheltered due to reduced capacity. Sending people out onto the streets exposes them to unsanitary conditions in encampments. To help shelters manage these challenges, Congress provided $4 billion in Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) homeless assistance funding in the CARES Act that passed in March. An additional $11.5 billion in much-needed homeless assistance is included in the HEROES Act that passed the House of Representatives on May 15.
Motel Sheltering Using FEMA Funds
Generally, FEMA does not provide Public Assistance (PA) funding for emergency sheltering in non-congregate environments such as hotels, motels, or dorms, unless congregate sheltering is unavailable. Given the heavy usage and stress the current homeless shelter system is under, FEMA has determined that certain non-congregate sheltering costs will be reimbursable under this program.
North Carolina was one of the first states to get approval for FEMA-funded non-congregate sheltering. Having recent, extensive experience working with FEMA during the recovery from Hurricanes Florence Matthew, state lawmakers and advocates were able to quickly create a request with the state public health department. The state government then released program guidance that stated all current shelter residents met the FEMA-approved definition of “high-risk individuals,” and would be eligible for non-congregate shelter in motel or hotels.
Although the guidance was broad, the state did not receive formal FEMA approval for the expanded definition of “high risk,” creating questions about reimbursement. Without formal FEMA approval, there is a chance that FEMA could refuse to reimburse organizations for the costs of arranging and maintaining non-congregate sheltering. Without a more forceful guarantee from the federal government, many localities are not heeding the expanded guidance and are moving only medically high-risk, COVID-19-positive, or exposed individuals into non-congregate shelter.
All residents of congregate shelters in the state of Connecticut are also eligible for non-congregate shelter. This was made possible through a broad public health order by Connecticut’s health commissioner stating that deconcentrating of shelters is a necessary public-health measure. That order was used as the basis of Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont’s request to FEMA to cover this broad population, and shelter and homeless service providers worked quickly to prioritize the needs of people experiencing homelessness. Approximately 1,000 people from over 60 shelters will be moved into 15 hotels.
Important CDC Guidance for Shelter Operations
The CDC recently released guidance for homeless shelter providers on how to operate during the pandemic based on what is known about the coronavirus. The CDC advises shelters to stay open, deeming them an essential function of the community. The CDC recommends that shelters should close only if the health department, public housing authority staff, and homeless service providers determine together that remaining open is a significant risk to public health.
The CDC states that shelters should not exclude people who are having symptoms or test positive for COVID-19. The person presenting symptoms should be provided a mask and have access to non-emergency medical care as needed. Shelter providers should ensure they have a separate place where symptomatic individuals can safely stay within the shelter without spreading infection or others or should be provided shelter at an alternate site such as a hotel or motel.