Planning for Seasonal Weather Emergencies: A Solution or a Symptom?

Over the last week, large swaths of the nation have seen the first major emergency heat wave of the summer. And it’s safe to say that it won’t be the last one.

Just about everyone in the human services sector knows this cycle. In anticipation of just such events, many communities spent the previous months formulating “summer plans” to help flex up services and resources to accommodate seasonal heat emergencies. And, of course, that usually involves asking local leaders and donors to help fund this expanded work. A similar cycle takes place in anticipation of winter emergencies.

These efforts make a difference. We all know how dangerous extreme heat can be to people experiencing homelessness. We all know how it can aggravate medical conditions and affect medications. And we all know how essential street outreach is at these moments, when people are at increased risk of heat stroke, dehydration, and cardiovascular events.

Yet, every year people still tragically suffer or die in the indignity of the elements.

These seasonal events serve as a reminder of just how stretched our systems are, and how difficult it is to accommodate stress tests. And while many local leaders are eager to step up and support relief efforts, it shouldn’t take a weather emergency to have the resources needed to serve everyone who needs help.

What Can We Do About It?

Weather emergencies make us all feel powerless. Yet, there are a number of important things that every community can do to be more prepared for when an emergency strikes.

Perhaps the very most important step is to have a dedicated, year-long focus on unsheltered homelessness.

The reason is obvious: people who are unsheltered face the greatest risk during weather emergencies. But it’s also essential to recognize that the impact of broadly reducing unsheltered homelessness would also reduce the scale of resources spent each year on seasonal preparedness planning.

Improving Emergency Shelter

As part of this effort, it is critical that communities continue to pivot their approaches to emergency shelter based on feedback from the people who use them – as well as from those who either cannot access shelter or for whom current shelter models simply do not meet their needs. Two important steps are to lower barriers to entry and amend shelter rules to expectations focused on health and safety thus making shelter environments less punitive.

We are also witnessing a shift in how several communities view congregate vs. non-congregate shelter models. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, several communities were able to use COVID-relief funds to convert hotels and motels into non-congregate shelter. Research in King County, WA shows that not only were many people more likely to accept shelter offered in this model, but also that people felt more stable, healthier, and less anxious in them. In King County’s case, residents also had higher exits to permanent housing and indications of greater engagement with homeless housing services.

These efforts make a difference in our abilities to bring people inside and then connect them with permanent housing all year long – not just when it’s unsafe outdoors.

Several communities are also closely watching their data to better manage their shelter flow and capacity. This includes evaluating length of stay, exit rates into permanent housing, and diversion rates for people with safe alternatives to shelter. It also includes evaluating the utilization rates across the various types of shelter within each system, to identify areas where dedicated beds for various subpopulations can be right-sized to meet the community’s demand.

These are all essential duties in the name of building stronger and more flexible systems. But every system in the nation needs additional help.

The Help We All Need

The very existence of annual summer and winter planning often feels like a symptom of the chronic underfunding of housing and homelessness programs. While no one is better at doing more with less than the folks on the frontlines of this mission, it is a deeply unjust way to work during an emergency. And homelessness is an emergency all year long – not just when the elements remind us.

The scope of the investments needed to appropriately fund the systems that end homelessness and address the nation’s affordable housing crisis can only be provided by our elected officials.

This is why sustained advocacy is so essential. For too long, housing and homelessness has been back-burnered by elected officials. A new urgency is arriving in several communities, but so are toxic and destructive strategies that criminalize homelessness and coerce people experiencing it. These are not solutions, and they do absolutely nothing to connect people to housing.

That makes this moment an essential time to start consistently advocating for the resources we need to do this work. Everyone can start by making sure they are subscribed to Alliance advocacy alerts. The results take time, and sometimes that can be frustrating. But every time we roll out yet another seasonal homelessness strategy, it should serve as a reminder of just how stretched our systems are, how often we are expected to do more with less, and how outrageous of a proposition that is.

Homelessness is an emergency no matter what the weather is. It’s time to make sure our federal and local officials know that.