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Built for Zero COVID-19 Response and Support

March 25, 2020

During the week of March 16th, 2020, Community Solutions asked communities in Built for Zero to share the biggest challenges they were facing as they responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how their work has been impacted. We have summarized responses from team leaders below.

Communities list the primary impacts on their work to end homelessness as follows:

Space and Resource Needs

Diminished shelter space and capacity

  • Social distancing protocols have greatly diminished how many people shelter space can accommodate safely
  • Most communities do not have appropriate levels of staffing to safely accommodate all the people they must now bring inside.

Lack of access to personal protective equipment and other critical resources

  • While much attention has been paid to the urgent lack of PPE in healthcare settings, street outreach workers and other homeless services workers are the frontlines of these systems. 
  • Without adequate PPE for homeless services workers, assessment and triage is not possible, and efforts to prevent an overtaxing of the hospitals will fail.
  • Shelters also lacking hand sanitizer, gloves, infrared thermometers

Closure of public service spaces

  • Many places where people experiencing homelessness spend their time, like day centers, have shut down, which means it is harder for local service workers to find people to assess and meet their health and housing needs

Program + Services Interruptions

Street outreach scaled back or discontinued

  • Because there is now personal protective equipment (masks, gloves, etc.) for frontline workers, services like street outreach cannot operate safely, which means teams do not know who is out there dealing with symptoms

Staff primarily working from home

  • Attempts to conduct intakes, case management conversations and other coordinated entry functions by phone or video conferencing are not ideal, especially with a population that often lacks basic, reliable internet access. 
  • Decreased human touch and face to face interaction also increases isolation and compounds mental health challenges.

Housing programs and housing authorities suspending services + housing processes

  • As agencies shift to pandemic response, the routine work of actually helping people move into permanent housing has ground to a halt in many communities at precisely the time it may be most important

Staff Support

Concerns and protocols to keep front-line staff and other service/agency staff safe

  • Local teams report a lack of clear guidance for non-healthcare workers who nevertheless must engage with potentially symptomatic or COVID-19-positive individuals (street outreach workers, case managers + shelter workers, etc.)
  • Additionally, there is zero access to personal protective equipment

Morale is low

  • We heard this over and over. People are scared; they are confused and anxious; they are looking for clear leadership and it is hard to find. 
  • Workers in local service settings are also concerned about layoffs or insolvency at their agencies, to say nothing of their concern for the clients they serve.

Future Impacts

Moratorium on evictions preceding elevated inflow

  • Many communities report that their governors or mayors have placed a moratorium on evictions while so many people are unable to pay their rent. This is an important step, but local teams worry about a potential explosion in new inflow into homelessness once these restrictions are eventually lifted.

Communities list their biggest challenges and unanswered questions as:

  • Identifying and securing space for isolation and quarantine
    • Unfunded hotel/motel bed needs for isolation and quarantine
    • School gyms, arenas, etc. offer critical space in a crisis, but a lack of clear authority structures means no one has the ability to commandeer them
  • Meeting basic needs of those experiencing homelessness
    • Food, sanitation and basic medical care
  • Testing for COVID-19
    • The same problems that plague the country at large plague homeless services. Local teams face a lack of test kits, swabs, chemical reagent, lab capacity, etc. As such, they are essentially flying blind with some of the most vulnerable individuals in their communities.
  • Continuing to provide services while adhering to protocols/mandates
    • Shelter in place policies
    • Restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people
    • Staff working from home leaving no one to run facilities
  • Flexible resources and dollars needed to assess individuals, triage access to limited medical and isolation resources, and safely conduct outreach, 
    • While communities are skilled in the triage of individuals for limited housing resources in normal times, they have no guidance on how to safely conduct outreach, how to triage people for isolation and quarantine in the absence of testing and in the face of a largely unstudied disease, and how to staff the facilities where people are in isolation 
  • Lack of clear, consolidated information
    • Information coming from government agencies is overwhelming and often spread over multiple documents
    • Communities have requested best practices in establishing regular communication across community-wide partners and across sectors
    • Communities have asked for usable information tools (e.g. checklists, decision matrices, etc.)