The issue. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control warns that individuals experiencing homelessness are at increased risk for contracting COVID-19 and for developing severe disease. Homeless service providers also can be at increased risk for contracting COVID-19 due to their close contact with at-risk groups as well as are at risk for mental health complications, such as burnout and stress. Thus, the COVID-19 Pandemic may have disproportionately negative impacts on individuals experiencing homelessness and the individuals who serve them.
Current Investigation. This exploratory study sought to understand the impacts of COVID-19 on homeless service provision on O‘ahu. In particular, it examined needs and risk factors of individuals experiencing homelessness; frontline workers’ needs and stress levels; and the challenges of serving vulnerable populations during the pandemic. Preliminary results suggest that service providers—particularly outreach workers—have conducted a significant number of COVID-19 screenings but have reached only a small percentage of the homeless population and may be experiencing stress and burnout. Additionally, findings suggest that pre-existing needs of individuals experiencing homelessness (e.g., permanent housing and mental health services) have increased due to COVID-19.
Recommendations. Recommendations for O‘ahu include 1) instituting policies that build capacity for conducting COVID-19 screenings with individuals experiencing homelessness and work to increase pay and mental health resources for service providers who take on additional responsibilities during the pandemic; 2) forming a homelessness emergency planning committee to develop a comprehensive plan for this and future emergencies; and 3) extending permanent housing options to individuals experiencing homelessness with services aimed at addressing historic and on-going trauma. Finally, we recommend 4) strong support for services and policies that will prevent individuals from falling into homelessness, particularly individuals who may become homeless due to an inability to pay rent associated with the economic fallout from COVID-19. The Hawai‘i Data Collaborative (2020) projects that 19,000 Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed (ALICE) households will fall into poverty due to the economic fallout from COVID-19. Given that income levels are falling as rent costs do not, O‘ahu can expect an increase in homelessness without preventative measures. The best way to address homelessness is to prevent it.