People experiencing homelessness are especially vulnerable during disasters. About 1 in 4 people who are homeless in the United States is chronically homeless (PDF | 4 MB), meaning the person has been homeless for at least a year and also has a serious mental illness, substance use disorder, or physical disability. A substantial proportion of people who are homeless in the United States are unsheltered, or living in cars or parks, on sidewalks, or in abandoned buildings. In a disaster, people who are homeless are more likely to experience aggravation of existing mental illness, withdrawal from substances, and inability to evacuate. They may lose access to places they spent time and found safety before the disaster.
In spite of these issues, this population is often not prioritized during disaster planning and preparedness, response, and recovery. Inclusion of people experiencing homelessness and homelessness services providers in disaster planning is vital to ensuring all community members are accounted for and included in disaster response.
Special Circumstances and Considerations
Individuals experiencing homelessness often experience trauma as part of homelessness, and they may also have histories of trauma prior to becoming homeless. Because disasters may also involve trauma, they can cause these individuals to be retraumatized, which can involve intense reactions. It is vital to be informed about trauma and retraumatization and connect with those who have expertise in providing services to those experiencing homelessness.
Families who are homeless, especially those with young children, must be prioritized and kept together for unity and comfort. A single parent and children may become homeless when they flee domestic violence. Resources for those suffering from housing instability or intimate partner violence should be readily available for these individuals.
Although youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) account for up to 40% of youth experiencing homelessness (PDF | 1 MB), LGBT and queer or questioning individuals of all ages often experience violence and discrimination in ways that keep them from accessing necessary shelter and services. Homeless services programs and facilities with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Community Planning and Development must adhere to the Equal Access Rule (PDF | 308 KB) to provide safe and welcoming accommodations for LGBTQ individuals. These accommodations can include creating inclusive signage and intake forms, establishing protective written policies and procedures, and adopting inclusive language.
Older adults who are homeless may not have accessible shelters available if they develop access or functional needs, as many people do as they age. Also, homelessness may accelerate the aging process, increasing the chances of developing health problems (PDF | 5 MB). Older adults experiencing homelessness must be taken into consideration when providing appropriate services and supports.
Some individuals experiencing homelessness have companion animals. It is preferable to keep these individuals and their pets together as a family unit, as having a companion animal can reduce stress and enhance resilience.
Before a Disaster
- Partner with local service providers, especially those providing services to individuals experiencing homelessness, to prepare outreach and medical services in case of a disaster.
- Develop inclusive materials and plans for services. Use plain language in all communications and publications (in general a best practice in disaster communications).
- Evaluate local emergency shelters to ensure effective delivery of services. Assist in developing regulations and guidelines for providing immediate and inclusive access to individuals experiencing homelessness.
- Ensure service providers and emergency shelters are prepared for individuals with companion animals. Promote partnerships between these services and animal welfare organizations to establish reduced-cost or free veterinary services, training for staff on animal behavior and care, and legal training for co-sheltering people and animals.
- Educate staff and outreach workers on retraumatization, mental and substance use disorders, and all available local services.
During a Disaster
- Use multiple outreach methods to ensure individuals experiencing homelessness and those who work with and care for them receive vital information. These methods may include radio and television announcements, social media posts, flyers, and community meetings.
- Encourage shelters to suspend barriers to entry and lift curfews. Share information about available shelters and the suspended barriers to the public. Do not ask people to provide detailed personal information at intake, and prioritize their safety and connection to available services.
- Assist individuals in developing and maintaining a support system or self-care plan. Provide information for free or reduced-cost services, such as mental health and substance use-related support, veterinary care for companion animals, or housing options.
- Provide self-care trainings and check-ins for service providers, staff, and outreach workers.
After a Disaster
- Continue notifying individuals who are homeless of local resources and supports available through multiple methods of outreach.
- Assist individuals in identifying temporary or permanent shelter and housing options. Support those who may encounter resistance when seeking shelter, such as those who identify as LGBTQ+ or have pets.
- Connect individuals with local service providers that will continue offering services after the disaster. Follow up with individuals experiencing homelessness to ensure they receive appropriate services and supports.
- Assure individuals that many disaster survivors experience mental health and substance use-related reactions, and help is readily available. Share coping skills individuals can use.
- Provide debriefing and follow-up check-ins for service providers, staff, and outreach workers. Continue promoting partnerships with local homeless service providers, emergency shelters, and healthcare professionals to ensure preparedness and community unity.
The following collection of resources will help you in disaster planning:
- Disaster Preparedness To Promote Community Resilience (PDF | 5 MB) (toolkit from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD])
- Disaster Recovery Homelessness Toolkit (toolkit from HUD)
- Emergency Shelter Learning Series (resource collection from the National Alliance to End Homelessness)
- Equal Access for Transgender People: Supporting Inclusive Housing and Shelters (PDF | 308 KB) (guide from HUD)
- Improving Outcomes in Homelessness: Keeping People and Pets Together (PDF | 860 KB) (guide from the National Alliance to End Homelessness)
- SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach (manual from SAMHSA)
- Homelessness Programs and Resources (online information portal from SAMHSA)
- Tips for Survivors of a Disaster or Other Traumatic Event: Coping With Retraumatization (tip sheet from SAMHSA; also available in Spanish)