Protecting People from COVID-19 Requires State and Local Leadership

A new report issued by the National Alliance to End Homelessness examines challenges confronting frontline homeless service providers during the COVID19 pandemic. The report’s findings are based on a survey of nearly 800 homeless service providers, system leaders, funders, and people with lived experience on community needs.    

Among the report’s most critical findingshomeless service providers and system leaders urgently need state and local leadership to protect people experiencing homelessness.   

Some states and localities are rising to this challenge, providing their leadership and resources to ensure that people experiencing homelessness remain safe.  It is clear, however, that more help is needed.   

What can state and local leaders to do protect people experiencing homelessness from acquiring or transmitting COVID19?  

Move as many people out of homelessness and into permanent housing as quickly as possible to keep them safe.  Action steps may include: 

  • Expedite delivery of subsidized housing to people experiencing homelessness as quickly as possible. This includes making repairs necessary to quickly lease unused public housing units.  It could also include releasing state/local funding to be used for rental assistance (e.g., Housing Trust, HOMEetc., including rental assistance to make Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) properties affordable to people experiencing homelessness)Resources should be targeted to those at heightened risk due to age or illness. 
  • Dedicate public sector resources, including staff and funding, to quickly re-house people experiencing homelessness to keep them safe. This may involve mobilizing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) reserves and deploying case managers to provide both temporary rent assistance and support required to help families transition back to housing.  
  • Adopt and require a race equity lens in provision and use of resources to prevent replicating and exacerbating disparity in access or outcomes. 

Ensure safe temporary housing (hotels/motels) is available to everyone who requires it and is consistent with CDC guidance to prevent the spread of COVID19. Actions steps may include: 

  • Make public and quasi-public buildings – offices, convention spaces, university dorms, recreational centers – available to scale up temporary housing options for people experiencing homelessness. 
  • Negotiate/contract with private businesses, such as hotels, motels, restaurants, to provide temporary housing options and access to basic needs for people experiencing homelessness, particularly those individuals at heightened risk to age or illness  
  • Equip shelters with the necessary guidance and resources to protect people from COVID19, including thermometers, cleaning supplies, masks, and personal protective equipment. 
  • Provide funding to homeless service providers to increase staff resources, purchase food, and ensure programs have appropriate provisions (beds, linens) to shelter people. 
  • Identify publicly-funded and staffed safe spaces for people without housing to be quarantined and supported if positive for COVID19 or symptomatic and waiting tests results.  
  • Direct public health workers to provide mobile health care and testing for shelter residents.  
  • Adopt and require a race equity lens in provision and use of resources to prevent replicating and exacerbating disparity in access or outcomes. 

Promote the health and safety of unsheltered people while quickly transitioning them to temporary or permanent housing. Action steps may include: 

  • Provide funding and/or deploy public sector staff (including public health workers and others with health or mental health expertise) to outreach people who remain unsheltered, ensure they have access to information/guidance on how to stay safe, and are supported into newly available low-barrier temporary or permanent housing. 
  • Provide mobile health care services to people living outdoors. 
  • Open recreational and park facilities for overnight use for people experiencing homelessness, providing access to soap, water, showers and provide regular sanitation support. 
  • Allow for safe parking for those living in vehicles, suspend ticketing of vehicles and suspend sweeps on encampments. 
  • Provide people experiencing unsheltered homelessness tools to stay safe from COVID19, including access to toilets, handwashing stations, shower facilities, cleaning supplies, and personal protective equipment. 
  • Adopt and require a race equity lens in provision and use of resources to prevent replicating and exacerbating disparity in access or outcomes. 

Homeless service providers and system leaders also report requiring state and local leadership to prevent homelessness for the millions of people who will be financially devastated by job and income loss due to COVID19.  Other people at-risk of homelessness due to the impact of COVID19 include survivors fleeing domestic violence; people pushed out of doubled up situations that become unsustainable when everyone is required to stay in place; and formerly homeless individuals, youth, and families who are receiving support from homeless service systems to achieve housing stability.  They fear absent this support, people will turn to homeless service programs ill-equipped to meet their needs, thereby accelerating new entrants into homelessness and the crisis of unsheltered homelessness.  

What can state and local leaders do to prevent homelessness and increased risk of COVID19 transmission? 

Dedicate funding to support formerly homeless individuals and families receiving temporary and permanent rental assistance and case management support (e.g. Rapid Re-housing and Permanent Supportive Housing) so they can sustain housing and avoid a return to homelessness.  

  • Seek and support implementation of Medicaid waivers that allow mobile mental health and health services delivered to disabled and formerly homeless adults in permanent housing.  
  • Direct public sector health and mental health staff to provide mobile outreach and deliver supportive services to people with disabilities in permanent supportive housing.  
  • Provide funding to rapid re-housing providers so they can  extend rental assistance to individuals and families no longer able to transition quickly off short-term rent and case management assistance due to job loss.  
  • Equip people with technology (phones/internet) so they can stay connected to medical professionals, mental health workers and caseworkers during a time of self-isolation. 
  • Adopt and require a race equity lens in provision and use of resources to prevent replicating and exacerbating disparity in access or outcomes. 

Prevent housing loss and shelter/unsheltered homelessness for people impacted by COVID19.  Action steps may include: 

  • Ensure people who lost employment have ready access to supports to meet basic needs of families (including unemployment compensation, SNAP benefits, and cash assistance for families with children) throughout the duration of the crisis and time required for them to recover and reconnect to work.   
  • Consider providing rental or income supplements to help people to continue to pay their rent, providing legal assistance to people facing evictions, and funding low-interest/no-interest loan pools for people experiencing a housing crisis.  
  • Expand state, local and private homelessness prevention assistance for those facing eviction or housing loss and promote targeting of resources to direct funding to those most likely to experience homelessness. 
  • Ensure people exiting state and local care (foster care, hospitals) or institutions (prisons or jails) are assisted in securing safe housing so they avoid homelessness.  
  • Provide funding to homeless assistance providers to offer diversion assistance and flexible financial assistance, a practice that helps those who have lost housing identify alternatives to entering shelter or unsheltered homelessness. 
  • Adopt and require a race equity lens in provision and use of resources to prevent replicating and exacerbating disparity in access or outcomes. 


Across the country, thousands of people are working to help keep people experiencing homelessness safe and sheltered.  They are doing their best but ensuring their success requires far greater investment and support.  

They are seeking the leadership of elected officials and other key stakeholders, a vast expansion of safe and appropriate temporary housing options, increased investment in staff, funding to help people avoid or exit homelessness, help to improve the health and safety of existing program operations, and help meeting the basic needs of the people they serve.    

Protecting people experiencing homelessness from the devastation of COVID is possible, but homeless service providers cannot do it alone.