Addressing Disaster Vulnerability Among Homeless Populations during COVID-19

Reducing disaster vulnerability for people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic requires adapting existing preparedness guidance. Understanding the unique challenges of disaster preparedness among homeless communities and the strain on support services caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is critical for effectively planning for and carrying out emergency services and sheltering for homeless populations in the context of COVID-19 and disasters.

This new guidance from the Societal Experts Action Network (SEAN) of the National Academies helps decision makers and communities support homeless populations before, during, and after a disaster in the context of COVID-19.

Earlier guidance from SEAN identified strategies for updating evacuation plans, sheltering operations, and risk communication practices in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about those strategies here.

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Considerations for Providing Alternative Shelter Facilities during a Disaster in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic



Address Disaster Risk in Alternative and Modified Homeless Shelters: Shelter operators and emergency managers need to consider how disaster risk and exposure may have changed as a result of the use of alternative and modified homeless shelters adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and identify what modifications may be needed to ensure that residents can remain safe during a disaster.


Limit Encampment Sweeps and Mitigate Hazards at Encampment Sites: CDC guidance advises localities against the use of encampment sweeps during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through partnerships with local continuums of care, homeless serving organizations, and/or social and human services entities, emergency planners can improve safety by identifying encampment locations, designating points of contact or communicators that they can work with to disseminate information/communicate hazards, and ultimately incorporating these communities into evacuation, outreach, and disaster response plans.


Support Disaster Preparedness within Homelessness Organizations that Addresses Needs Related to the COVID-19 Pandemic, and Facilitate Integration of Homelessness Support into Community Emergency Planning: Interagency and multisector coordination across emergency planners, homeless serving organizations or the coalitions they represent, and other human and health service providers is necessary to address the emergency communication, sheltering, and other disaster assistance needs among people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic including training on stigma reduction. Government emergency planners across jurisdictions need to provide direction for such efforts.

Navigating Service Reductions and Supporting Population-Specific Needs


Emergency planners will need to consider how service disruptions will affect their community’s response to a disaster. Closures of public libraries and community centers, for example, have limited access to facilities that previously provided temporary shelter during inclement weather and other resources to individuals experiencing homelessness. The strategies below can help communities navigate reductions in critical service areas for homeless populations during a disaster.

Mitigating Health Impacts during the COVID-19 Pandemic and Disasters


Enhance Disaster Behavioral Health Capacity: Plan in advance to enable rapid mobilization of behavioral and other healthcare services in response to an emergency. Such planning needs to encompass assessment of behavioral health capacity and health needs, as well as provisions for long-term mental health care delivery. Barriers to access can be reduced by collocating mental health and medical services and using mobile units when possible. Coordination with clinics and health care providers can ensure continuous medication access and maintenance of medically assisted treatments for substance use during emergencies.


Support Service Providers’ Emotional Wellbeing: Burnout among staff and volunteers can be addressed by helping them manage chronic stressors, ensuring that workforce resources match demands, developing disaster behavioral health plans, and adapting staffing patterns that reduce stress and support recovery. Psychological first aid can be adapted to provide services for volunteers and other responders.

Meeting Safety Needs during the COVID-19 Pandemic and Disasters


Mitigate Hazard Exposure: Hazard exposure can be mitigated by providing emergency shelters during a disaster and coordinating with homeless service providers to conduct outreach to unsheltered people. It is important as well to provide personal protective equipment to people who remain unsheltered and communicate with them about health risks.


Increase Disaster Preparedness and Response Support to Violence Prevention and Domestic Violence Programs for Diverse Populations: Safety needs of people experiencing homelessness can be addressed by coordinating with agencies that support groups at heightened risk of becoming targets of violence and providing targeted assistance to ensure continuity of operations.

Addressing Homelessness in the Aftermath of Disaster

The economic strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with shortages of affordable housing and disaster-induced loss of housing stock, have left individuals and communities more vulnerable to being displaced by a disaster. Using the strategies below, community leaders can work to address homelessness and housing precarity in the aftermath of a disaster.


Attend to Issues of Housing Precarity: It is important to plan in advance to curtail spikes in homelessness among precariously housed and low-income people. Multisector planning can be carried out to build capacity to implement rapid rehousing plans after a disaster. Important as well is to create legal protections and provide relocation assistance for renters and low-income homeowners.


Address Barriers to Disaster Assistance: Coordination of disaster and traditional case management services for people experiencing homelessness and those who are precariously housed is essential. When disaster case managers are not available, support and training can be provided to traditional homeless service case managers. Policies that disqualify people experiencing homelessness need to be eliminated when possible; otherwise, coordination with charities and foundations can be undertaken to develop alternative sources of support. Collaboration with local organizations can assist in accessing trusted messengers

Learn More About SEAN

The Societal Experts Action Network (SEAN) links decision makers with social, behavioral, and economic science researchers who can provide evidence-based expert guidance that supports local, state, and federal policies and responses related to COVID-19. The network, an activity of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, responds to the most pressing questions and provides rapid, actionable responses. To learn more about SEAN, visit

The network appreciates any and all feedback on its work. Please send comments to, or fill out the feedback form on the right.