In response to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and with a surge of new federal resources, many states and localities began offering a new shelter option for people experiencing homelessness: a motel or hotel room.
Among the beneficiaries are individuals in fragile health who had been residing outdoors and who did not feel comfortable or safe in more traditional larger shelter programs. Because of this new approach, people were kept safe from transmitting or acquiring COVID-19 – thereby reducing broader community transmission of COVID19 and preventing illness and possible death of people experiencing homelessness.
Moving Forward, Not Back
As the winter season approaches, many jurisdictions are now looking to scale back their investment in hotel and motel rooms for shelter. This is occurring despite FEMA’s continued reimbursement to states and localities for non-congregate shelter costs through the end of year. This scaling back is also occurring when many localities lack sufficient, attractive alternative shelter options for people experiencing homelessness.
These reductions raise big questions: will people now in hotels and motels be expected to exit back to the streets or shelters that do not meet their needs? Will they and newly homeless individuals compete for the safe, scarce shelter options? Will reduced shelter capacity due to removal of hotel/motel units result in an increase in the number of people who are living outdoors, compounding the crisis of unsheltered homelessness?
There are policy and programmatic choices leaders are making now that can reduce (or increase) unsheltered homelessness: choices about how to use resources that could be used to help people experiencing homelessness connect to permanent housing. Choices on how to use resources that can be used more effectively to prevent people from becoming homelessness. Choices about whether to continue investing in hotels/motels for shelter.
Actions to Take Now to Reduce Unsheltered Homelessness
1) Direct new federal housing resources to helping people move out of homelessness, particularly those with the greatest challenges.
Congress provided significant new tools for states and localities to re-house individuals experiencing homelessness. Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) received funding that will support an estimated 70,000 permanent Emergency Housing Vouchers. With over 580,000 individuals experiencing homelessness on a given night even before the pandemic, including over 225,000 unsheltered people, these resources are sorely needed to help homeless people return to housing. Community leaders should set a threshold for the percentage of vouchers that will be directed to people currently experiencing homelessness. They should further seek commitments from partners who can provide housing navigation and lease up help as well as ongoing supportive services.
Congress also invested $5 billion in the HOME Homeless Assistance Program. This represents one of the most exciting new funding resources available to states and localities: the funds can be used to acquire hotels/motels, an option that has proven successful in getting people into permanent housing. This resource could significantly expand permanent housing options for people who have experienced long-term and chronic homelessness, including those now living in motels or outdoors – but only if leaders prioritize its use for this purpose. Community leaders should demand a commitment of HOME funding toward securing new permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness.
2) Direct new federal resources to prevent homelessness for those at greatest risk.
The U.S. Treasury has provided nearly $50 billion to states and localities for Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA). A key focus of program funders to date has been using ERA to help leaseholders retain their housing.
An overlooked opportunity is the great potential of these funds to assist people at much higher risk of homelessness, such as those living in doubled up situations or who are self-paying in hotels or motels, as well as others who lack traditional lease arrangements. The funds can also be used to provide relocation assistance and prospective rent help, so families who are evicted and lose their housing can be assisted into new housing, without ever requiring a shelter stay.
State and local leaders must ensure that ERA resources and other funding streams that purport to prevent homelessness are reaching those at greatest risk. This can be achieved through investing resources in homelessness diversion and problem-solving; engaging in outreach to identify highest need households (including those who have previously experienced homelessness); and coordinating with homeless service systems (and people with lived experience) to refine targeting strategies and intervention models.
3) Resist pressure to scale back investment in hotels and motels for shelter until they are no longer needed.
People without safe adequate housing options require a place to stay, a place to rest and meet their basic needs. This was widely acknowledged during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and it will remain true when this health crisis finally dissipates.
But hotel and motel rooms are costly. Getting timely reimbursement from FEMA is reportedly burdensome. Staffing up to support people in hotels/motels can be both costly and challenging. And yet, the alternative is unacceptable: leaving people, including people in very poor health, no safe, adequate alternative to remaining outside. State and local leaders must commit to maintaining hotel/motel rooms to provide safe shelter option for those who need them while working to right-size their homeless service interventions through strategic investment in prevention and re-housing activities.
With the resources states and localities now have in hand, we can do much to prevent unsheltered homelessness from growing and maybe even reduce it. But it takes intentional action by all of us. This includes action to ensure that states and localities have the resources they need to end homelessness.
As you read this, Congress is now deciding on how they will respond to the urgent housing needs of individuals and families, including people experiencing homelessness. New investments in affordable housing will both reduce the number of people that become homeless and provide opportunities for people to exit homelessness and achieve housing stability. Taking action matters. Taking action now matters a lot.