The United States is slowly emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic with an increased sense of safety and confidence. Its widespread vaccine efforts and record low infection rates have flushed people within the United States with opportunities that would be unthinkable just a year ago.
While a tremendous amount is reverting to “normal,” particular adaptations and innovations have emerged that will outlive their pandemic origins. One such innovation is increasing support for non-congregate homeless shelters within the United States.
At the onset of the pandemic, homeless shelters pivoted to safeguard people experiencing homelessness from the increased COVID-19 risks associated with congregate housing. Congregate housing settings, such as homeless shelters, posed considerable constraints for exercising appropriate social distancing.
At the start of the pandemic, the closeness of living and sleeping quarters in congregate housing settings led to the rapid transmission of COVID-19 in such environments. In addition, many people experiencing homelessness possess underlying conditions and obstructions to healthcare. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, “People experiencing homelessness who contract COVID-19 are twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require critical care, and two to three times as likely to die than others in the general public.”
Consequently, the homeless industry and the United States federal and local governments identified a need for socially distanced spaces for individuals experiencing homelessness. The solution? Hotels across the United States remained virtually dormant with an unprecedented lack of travel.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided Public Assistance funds to help support this effort. Beginning in February 2020, FEMA would provide 75% reimbursement for costs related to hosting people who are homeless in non-congregate housing, like hotels. Under President Biden, this percentage expanded to 100% reimbursement in January 2021 with the promise of retroactive reimbursement distribution.
Using these funds, state and local governments across the United States converted commercial hotels into spaces for people to find socially distanced shelter. As a result, these hotels effectively gave those experiencing homelessness space that could enact appropriate social distancing.
Hosting people in hotels helped slow the spike of COVID-19 transmission observed in people experiencing homelessness. Slowing the spike and hosting individuals exposed to or positive with COVID-19 also lessened the burden on nearby hospitals. Cases that would have been treated in the hospitals were being treated by healthcare professionals in these hotels, effectively saving hospital capacity for individuals with more dire health care needs.
Moreover, resources were more available to and utilized by persons who are homeless in these non-congregate hotel housing settings. The hotel setting allowed those who are homeless consistent access to healthcare and services. It is often unlikely that an individual can stay long enough to gain consistent access to services or a particular caregiver in a congregate shelter.
Additionally, these hotels allowed families to remain together, where sometimes shelter regulations separate family members by things like gender identity.
The success of the hotels in providing shelter for those experiencing homelessness has led to some cities across the United States expanding this hotel utilization. Notably, the state of California has launched the ambitious Project Homekey.
Project Homekey is the continuation of Project Roomkey, which aimed to expand non-congregate housing to those experiencing homelessness within the pandemic. Project Homekey is a long-term project that California seeks to enact to secure more long-term housing. It will provide $600 million of grant funds to local public entities to purchase buildings, like hotels, and convert them into permanent long-term housing.
While some projects like Project Homekey are expanding the use of these hotels, other cities across the United States are phasing out the emergency use of hotels for those who are homeless. Some hoteliers are phasing these programs out given their anticipation of increased tourism-based travel as COVID-19 restrictions soften. Other cities, such as New York City, have faced protests from local home and business owners to shut down these hotels.
This hotel-converted-homeless shelter innovation has elucidated the efficacy of non-congregate housing for those experiencing homelessness. This more consistent environment allows for better access to resources and family unity. However, with the anticipated increase in the hospitality and tourism industry and the FEMA 100% reimbursement due to end on Sept. 31, 2021, this method is not without its challenges.
HCD California Housing and Community Development. (n.d.). Homekey. https://www.hcd.ca.gov/grants-funding/active-funding/homekey.shtml#backgroundd.
People experiencing homelessness on the streets are at great risk. National Low Income Housing Coalition. (2020, June 9). https://nlihc.org/resource/people-experiencing-homelessness-streets-are-great-risk.
The United States Government. (2021, January 21). Memorandum to Extend Federal Support to Governors’ Use of the National Guard to Respond to COVID-19 and to Increase Reimbursement and Other Assistance Provided to States. The White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/21/extend-federal-support-to-governors-use-of-national-guard-to-respond-to-covid-19-and-to-increase-reimbursement-and-other-assistance-provided-to-states/.