Research Highlights Promising Effects of Using Hotels as Noncongregate Shelters during Pandemic

A new study published in Housing Policy Debate, Hotels as Noncongregate Emergency Shelters: An Analysis of Investments in Hotels as Emergency Shelter in King County, Washington During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” details outcomes for individuals experiencing homelessness who resided in noncongregate hotels during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The study uses research conducted in King County, WA, and compares outcomes across three groups: (1) people staying in noncongregate (group) hotels; (2) people staying in emergency shelters with enhanced services like unrestricted access to facilities and case management; and (3) people staying in emergency shelters with basic services. The study finds that those who stayed in noncongregate hotels experienced lower exposure to COVID-19, increased residential stability, greater engagement with staff, and improvements in health and well-being.

The researchers used data from King County’s HMIS system, the Washington Disease Reporting System, and other administrative sources to assess key outcomes. The researchers also conducted interviews with residents who compared their experiences living in group hotels to previous experiences in congregate shelters. Group hotels are hotels in which the entirety of a shelter’s staff and residents have been moved from a congregate shelter to a noncongregate hotel. “Group hoteling” is different from individual hoteling, in which hotels are used for people experiencing homelessness as well as other guests.

The research found that group hotels effectively limited the spread of COVID-19. Following an initial COVID-19 outbreak prior to implementation of noncongregate housing in hotels, a second wave of outbreaks occurred within shelter sites but not in the hotels. Interviewees felt less safe in congregate shelters, given their close proximity to others and their inability to self-isolate. Staff also highlighted these problems, noting that stopping the spread of COVID-19 was far more difficult in congregate settings.

Group hotels enhanced residents’ quality of life in other ways, too. People residing in group hotels experienced greater residential stability than those in the other two groups. Residential stability was critical in helping meet the primary goal of limiting the spread of COVID-19. Eleven percent of group hotel residents exited the homeless system between April and August 2020 compared to 32% of individuals living in enhanced shelters and 28% of individuals living in basic shelters. Of individuals who left group hotels, 60% reported exiting to permanent housing, compared to 53% of those at enhanced shelters and 13% of those at basic shelters. In other homelessness programs, moving individuals out of the homeless system may be the primary goal.

The researchers also assessed resident engagement with staff, using the completion of a time-intensive Coordinated Entry assessment as a proxy for engagement. They found that of individuals who had not previously completed this assessment, 7% of individuals in group hotels, 5% of individuals in enhanced shelters, and 1% of individuals in basic shelters completed this assessment. Residents spoke of feeling more able and willing to talk to staff in a group hotel because they were under less stress and had more amenities that made them comfortable opening up. The research also found that group hotels facilitated greater health and well-being. Residents spoke of being able to engage in more activities – like exercise, meditation, and volunteering – that improved their physical and emotional health.

The research presented in the paper adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that homelessness solutions that center human dignity facilitate greater security and stability. The researchers also highlight the link between Housing First and group hotels, as both interventions facilitate autonomy among residents, leading to meaningful impacts on mental and physical health.

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