COVID-19 rapid response brief: Safe, temporary shelter for homeless populations during the pandemic

April 21, 2020

A sign reading "hotel", a possible temporary shelter for homeless populations during the COVID-19 pandemic.Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, staff members at the Center for Health and Research Transformation (CHRT) have been conducting rapid response research for Michigan policy leaders who are working proactively to protect vulnerable communities across the state. In this analysis for county-level commissioners, we outline some of the strategies state and local governments are deploying to provide alternate temporary shelter spaces and isolation areas for homeless populations who are particularly at-risk for both contracting and spreading the COVID-19 virus.

Strategies to provide temporary shelter include leasing vacant hotel rooms, repurposing public facilities like convention halls and recreation centers, and utilizing temporarily vacant dormitories and office space. The purpose of this document is to provide information on where these strategies have been implemented, how they have been implemented, and some of the health implications to consider.

In brief, we find that infection can spread rapidly in congregate settings, even if bed spacing complies with social distancing guidance. Frequently monitoring for COVID-19 symptoms in the temporary shelters is essential, including routine temperature checks, screening for symptoms, and prioritized testing. If an individual develops symptoms or tests positive, local governments should have a clear protocol for disinfecting, isolating, and relocating residents. We identify the current best practice to protect homeless populations as using congregate settings as a temporary housing solution until private rooms can be secured in hotels.

For cities and counties where using hotels is not financially feasible, we provide examples of alternate temporary shelter settings and recommendations for how to ensure these settings are safe and effective at protecting vulnerable populations. For example, California has purchased over 1,000 trailers to isolate homeless individuals presenting symptoms and provide housing. Trailers are a particularly appropriate option for rural areas with limited access to shelter facilities.

Providing meals in these temporary shelters is particularly challenging, as well. We review some creative solutions.

Most importantly, we urge local governments to act quickly to protect vulnerable homeless populations with temporary shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic.