Report Examines How Localities and States Used COVID-19 Funds to Respond to Homelessness

A new report from the Urban Institute, “Using COVID-19 Relief Resources to End Homelessness,” details the actions undertaken by sites in eight states and localities to prevent and reduce homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report finds that sites had similar goals and undertook similar actions to keep people experiencing homelessness safe and to prevent new entrances into homelessness. Primary actions included expanding non-congregate shelter, conducting outreach to unsheltered residents, moving people experiencing homelessness to permanent housing, and providing emergency rental assistance to prevent homelessness. The report outlines successes across sites, such as implementing permanent housing solutions and prioritizing equity, as well as challenges, such as limited capacity and trouble spending resources from multiple complex funding sources simultaneously. 

Researchers conducted interviews across eight sites with local government officials, nonprofit program administrators, public housing authorities, and continuums of care. These sites, though geographically diverse, implemented similar primary activities amid the onset of COVID-19. Several sites, including Santa Clara County, CA, and King County, WA, moved people residing in congregate shelters to non-congregate shelters, such as hotels and motels, to decrease the risk of exposure to and transmission of COVID-19. Sites also expanded their efforts to help people exit homelessness to permanent housing. In Austin, TX, and Fairfax, VA, for example, staff connected people living in non-congregate settings to rapid rehousing. Sites also used emergency rental assistance funds to prevent homelessness, partnering with diverse community-based organizations to reach those most at risk.

Interviewees cited several common successes in their efforts to prevent homelessness amid COVID-19. Several sites, including Santa Clara County, King County, and Austin, created more permanent housing as a result of their work, obtaining state and local funding to convert hotels and motels to permanent housing. Some interviewees were also successful in prioritizing equity in their response efforts. Austin and King County, for example, implemented a new housing prioritization screener to prioritize those households most at risk of COVID-19 exposure and homelessness, explicitly prioritizing Black households.

Sites also faced challenges in their efforts to quickly implement and scale up new programs. Nearly all sites struggled with staff turnover and limited capacity, which also impacted their ability to quickly spend program funds. Some sites also struggled to simultaneously spend multiple funding sources. For example, sites used three funding sources under the “CARES Act” and three funding sources under the “American Rescue Plan Act,” as well as FEMA funding, funding from the “Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021,” and other state and local funding. Varying grant timelines, reporting requirements, and eligible uses made it difficult for sites with already limited capacity to effectively use these funds simultaneously.

The report suggests that future research should focus on how communities can better prepare to incorporate equity into emergency responses. Future research should also identify which innovative practices used during the pandemic should be permanently integrated into the social safety net.

The report can be found at: