Noncongregate Housing Plus Services Can Better Protect People Experiencing Homelessness during and beyond the Pandemic

The third calendar year of the COVID-19 pandemic started with a new variant making its way through communities across the country. Businesses and schools have closed, and public health officials have encouraged staying home to stop the spread of COVID-19. But our unhoused neighbors do not have this luxury.

People experiencing homelessness are especially vulnerable to the spreading omicron variant because of their lower vaccination rates, higher rates of chronic conditions associated with severe complications from COVID-19, and the close proximity inside communal shelters, where infectious diseases spread more rapidly. Shelters have been advised not to follow the shortened isolation period and are again being asked to expand their capacity because of these dangers.

As omicron spreads through shelters, communities have not fully implemented lessons learned during the first surge of COVID-19. Evidence from the pandemic suggests providers should prioritize noncongregate shelter with coordinated services to better protect people now and to promote better housing outcomes beyond the pandemic.

How local services shifted during the pandemic

In March 2020, localities scrambled to create safer spaces for people experiencing homelessness. Using federal pandemic dollars, communities rented out hotels that sat empty as traveling halted. These new noncongregate, or individualized and private, environments offered expanded hours and became service hub as other centers, such as food pantries, health clinics, libraries, and community centers, shut their doors.

This marked a departure from past models, when shelters were open only at night and people had to travel across cities to various agencies and organizations to find needed services. In this new approach, guests had direct and daily access to resources, including health care, food and water, and case management, in the comfort of a private, consistently available space. Hotel shelters were lifesaving, particularly for the medically vulnerable, who were often prioritized for these spaces (PDF).

Noncongregate shelters helped slow COVID-19’s spread, and they also provided comprehensive homeless services. Repurposed hotels provided safe, stable environments that improved overall health and led to more permanent housing placements and greater service engagement (PDF). Staff said they were able to serve more people than before the pandemic (PDF), partly because of increased capacities and because residents vastly preferred noncongregate environments (PDF) over traditional shelters.

A return to “normal”

As case numbers ebbed and public events and travel resumed, many communities sunset these individualized shelter environments, despite concerns from people experiencing homelessness, advocates, and health care workers.

Although federal reimbursement for hotels was extended through April 2022, localities have said the funding can be difficult to access and comes with strict guidelines, and others face opposition from community members. These barriers may be contributing to closures, forcing people back into substandard, crowded, and unsafe conditions. In communities where programs have started to transition back to traditional shelter, former participants have already moved to unsheltered environments rather than return to congregate shelter.

As communities nationwide decrease their shelter capacity and return to communal environments, they are being hit by the dangerous combination of a rise in cases and a drop in temperatures. More people are seeking shelter, stretching weakened capacities and making social distancing difficult. Shelters are cramming people into small isolation rooms without beds while cold-weather shelters are closing and some people are avoiding shelters because of increasing case numbers, forcing many into below-freezing temperatures.

A more comprehensive, equitable approach to homelessness

In the early days of the pandemic, communities employed a new response to address America’s homelessness crisis that could be a model for the future. But now we are seeing the consequences of returning to a patchwork approach.

A more effective response to homelessness is even more critical because the pandemic’s economic effects have left millions of Americans housing insecure. Without a proper response, we may see an increase in homelessness for communities of color, who are already more likely to experience homelessness because of systemic oppression and exclusion from socioeconomic opportunities. And these communities of color have faced increased housing insecurity during the pandemic.

Addressing our growing homelessness crisis will require significant investment of time and resources (PDF) to strengthen response systems, including substantial federal funding. Although expanded federal support will be critical to helping communities address the growing crisis, localities can employ other strategies to transform how they approach homelessness, informed by lessons learned during the initial surge of the pandemic: