The challenges people dealing with homelessness are facing right now are immense. We are achieving some things – like continuing to house people during a global pandemic, and innovating new ways to do so – but we need to build into our work that we’re not going back to old ways when things get better. An example is the need for an endgame for hotel initiatives.

Many communities have done excellent work keeping homeless people safe from COVID. A main technique is by using hotel rooms, left empty from the effects of the pandemic on travel and tourism, to temporarily house people. Places saw that many of the characteristics that are associated with the worst outcome from COVID were distressingly common among people experiencing homelessness – characteristics related to race, age, respiratory diseases, compromised immune systems. Crowded shelters or encampments on the street with no access even to simple handwashing were not going to work – so communities made deals with hotel owners to bring people inside. FEMA picked up on it, and Congress made the money available through the CARES Act.

The limitation, though, is obvious – these measures are temporary. At some point, the virus will be under control and hotel owners will want to go back to renting rooms for more money to their typical clientele. The prospect of thousands of older people with disabilities returning to the streets is imminent. A permanent solution, in the form of housing, has to be on the table. We can’t go back to the old normal.

Of course, even the temporary help is hardly being done at the scale needed. Many communities have a long way to go before homeless people are safe from COVID. Shelters are still too crowded, or have shut down completely. More people have ended up on the streets as unemployment has grown. Eviction moratoriums have helped, but landlords have found ways around them, and rental assistance is still needed. Fewer people have options to double up, when their families and friends are afraid of COVID.

The crises of the current moment have raised awareness about how vulnerable people are without housing – “just stay home” is the simple solution for COVID for the most vulnerable people, and every time anyone says it, it’s a reminder that hundreds of thousands of Americans don’t have one.

The vulnerability, though, goes far beyond COVID. People who are homeless, and those who work on homelessness, understand how dangerous it is and always has been, and how vulnerable people are. Death rates are high from other health conditions, from crime victimization, from overdose.

It’s never been okay for large numbers of Americans to be homeless. If COVID is helping people see that – and it is – then we will not, in fact, go back.

Instead, we must go forward. And the solution is clear – housing.

If resources are made available to get every homeless person housed, that would make a massive difference. Many people who are homeless, need other kinds of services in order to have productive lives – but decades of research have shown that those services don’t accomplish much if a person doesn’t have a stable place to live. And it’s housing, since the rise of modern mass homelessness in the early 1980s, that’s been missing from the solution. If we’re not going to go back, – then our housing strategies needs to go forward.

There is hope that it will. It needs to start with the resources for homelessness and housing in the Heroes Act: $11.5 billion for homelessness, and $100 billion for rental assistance to prevent people from losing their housing. These are significant fixes, but temporary. While we need immediate action in the short term, this moment will critically shape the future of homelessness.

As part of the regular HUD funding process, we’ll need to substantially increase both homelessness funding and funding for “mainstream” HUD programs like Section 8. A positive sign: – the House version of the regular FY21 HUD spending bill passed the house the other day, and it includes these increases.

In the coming years we need to take these programs to scale, with enough money so that everyone gets the help they need. No more waiting lists at housing authorities and coordinated entry centers. We have many new allies: they have seen the truth, as presented by COVID. It will not go away.

There’s real support now for the idea that housing should be provided universally for everyone who’s eligible, as is done with food stamps and Medicaid. It’s in bills in Congress, in Presidential Candidates’ policy plans. It will need to be an important part of our advocacy at the national, state and local level. It will take leadership and know-how, in addition to money. And it will be a significant step toward real justice.


Written by Steve Berg September 8, 2020