Hurricane Florence: The Homeless System’s Response

As the southeastern and mid-Atlantic sections of the U.S. nervously await the arrival of what could be a severely damaging hurricane, disaster preparedness is well underway. States of emergency have been declared and mandatory evacuations have been ordered along the Eastern Seaboard.

Those who have the resources to evacuate or to “safe proof” their homes and surrounding areas will likely do so. But what about the most vulnerable populations, such as people experiencing homelessness? What can we do for those who do not have the resources to leave or even to receive communications about the level of danger or the information about how to seek help?

Addressing disaster preparedness and homelessness is nothing new. In fact, there have been several back-to-back disasters in recent years where Continuums of Care (CoCs) have worked with city and community leaders and disaster officials to integrate the unique needs of homeless populations into the planning process. The Way Home in Houston is an example of a high-functioning homeless response system in the wake of a major hurricane (Harvey) in 2017. Although a recognized set of best practices might not exist for assisting people experiencing homelessness during natural disasters, there are lessons we can learn from other CoCs that have been through them.

Here are four key takeaways from The Way Home’s experience during Hurricane Harvey:

  • All existing shelters should suspend barriers to entry. This should include curfew.
  • Mobilize outreach workers to get the word out to people experiencing homelessness about the availability of shelters and the removal of barriers.
  • Communicate with first responders. The CoC needs to inform them of all shelter locations, so that they can assist people when they find them.
  • Don’t push people to provide detailed information at intake. Data is important, but safety is first. Prioritize keeping people safe and connected to available services.

We know that millions of people are likely to be affected by the oncoming hurricane. Let’s not forget the most vulnerable and make sure preparedness plans include people experiencing homelessness.