Access: The TAC Blog
THE UNITED STATES IS EXPERIENCING A CRISIS unlike anything we have experienced before. The challenges associated with COVID-19 have significantly affected the systems that help people living with disabilities or experiencing homelessness. Every system, every provider, and every person affected by this crisis has needs.
State government agencies are stretched, with many employees working remotely and much existing work on hold in order to focus on the crisis. State resources will become limited due to the shock to our economic system. Cities are implementing public health plans and managing “stay-at-home” orders. Direct service providers, such as mental health and homelessness agencies, have had to reduce capacity and access due to staff shortages and social distancing, while continuing to provide safety net services. Hospitals are bracing to be overwhelmed by the number of people who will need hospital-level treatment. Complicating the situation, our personal health and that of our family members, friends, and colleagues is at risk, and many people are experiencing stressors such as loss of income, shrinking retirement plans and investments, working from home, homeschooling our children, and social distancing and stay-at-home orders.
Direct service providers are on the front lines in helping people living with disabilities and experiencing homelessness to remain healthy and stable in their communities during a crisis. Unfortunately, they are not typically the focus of disaster mitigation, preparedness, or response and recovery activities, leaving them to manage the crisis on their own. This can result in inefficient use of resources, lack of coordination and communication, and poor outcomes for the individuals being served. Vulnerable populations should be a focus for all aspects of disaster mitigation, including the current public health crisis, at the local, state, and federal levels.
Throughout my career, I have learned the importance of relying on a set of core principles to successfully manage major challenges, including systems-level crises and disasters. Whether you are reading this from the perspective of a federal or state government agency, a local system, a philanthropy, or as a provider, these four principles can serve as a framework in your work to help our communities navigate the Coronavirus crisis:
- An effective management structure is necessary in order to first control, then resolve the crisis, and finally implement recovery. Scattershot, piecemeal approaches delay access to critical resources and may exacerbate the crisis before it gets better. Management structures such as the Incident Command System and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Medical Surge Capacity and Capability (MSCC) Management System provide scalable approaches that can be used at any level as an organized way to manage the crisis. Incident command systems, such as command centers currently managing the COVID-19 crisis in most states, must involve direct services and homelessness systems in disaster response.
- Strong leadership, including both executive leadership and team leaders, is essential to crisis management and disaster recovery. Effective leaders demonstrate compassion and empathy to those impacted while simultaneously effectively managing the crisis as it is occurring. Strong leadership relies on a management framework that is informed and carried out by skilled subject matter experts.
- Large-scale crises and disasters are resolved successfully through collaboration, coordination, and partnerships — especially those established prior to the crisis. The needs of people living with disabilities and those experiencing homelessness cross into multiple systems and therefore require a multi-system, multi-level response.
- We emerge from a crisis because we are resilient. I am always amazed by the resilience of individuals who experience adversity, disability, stigma, oppression, racism, and disaster. A “culture of resilience,” as described in Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative (National Resource Council, 2012) is what is needed to collectively mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from large-scale disasters like the one we are confronting now, and the ones that lie ahead.
These principles held true when, as deputy commissioner at the New Jersey Department of Human Services, I was involved in responding to various crises and disasters while overseeing the state’s public mental health system, as well as emergency preparedness and response with other state and local agencies. Some of the situations in which the principles were an invaluable tool to me included statewide hurricane preparedness, planning and response to the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009, and operation and staffing of a mass shelter on a military base for citizens being evacuated to the United States in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. During a state government shutdown in 2006, I used my disaster-related experience to ensure that the public mental health system remained functional during a temporary halt in government functions. These principles were also relevant earlier in my career when I was on a mental health team that responded to disasters such as plane crashes and flooding — and when, as a wildland firefighter, I joined others in responding to fires that threatened life and property.
As we experience the COVID-19 crisis now, there is significant uncertainty that lies ahead for all of us, both professionally and personally. The four principles above can help us begin to push past a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. History shows that we will emerge from this. Every crisis is unique — but lessons learned from other situations can nevertheless give us a sense of optimism and control as we understand that this crisis, like every other, can be managed.
Learn about TAC's technical assistance services in disaster preparedness and recovery.
A Home, Defined by a Disaster — How Focusing on a Community’s Most Vulnerable Residents Can Transform Disaster Recovery Efforts
A home is so much more than a house, an apartment, or a couch at a friend’s place. A home means many different things to different people. But nowhere do we see “home” more wrongfully or woefully defined than in communities struggling to recover from a disaster.
The Stafford Act, which guides federal efforts in areas where a disaster has been declared, is focused on restoring people who are “disaster impacted” to their pre-disaster living conditions. When a storm damages a homeowner’s single-family dwelling, the path forward to restore that homeowner to their pre-disaster living conditions is relatively clear. But what about the same storm’s impact on people who were living on the street, or with family or friends? It is not as obvious how to restore such people to their pre-disaster living conditions. How do we help restore their homes when so many people responding to the disaster do not understand what their situations are? And even more importantly, how do we take disaster recovery a step further and begin to create more resilient communities?
I’ve worked in disaster recovery mode in Louisiana for over ten years, and more recently in North Carolina and California as well. But it only takes responding to one disaster to learn how powerfully the lowest-income members of a community are affected. In fact, a disaster’s effect on them is likely to involve a uniquely complex set of challenges because of their greater vulnerability to what is called “indirect impact.” For example, if a disaster takes public transportation off line for an extended period, a person without alternative options for getting to work might lose their job. Without that income, a couple of months later that person might lose whatever home they had, perhaps a room they rented in a friend’s apartment. This person may now experience episodes of literal homelessness, between short stays with family and friends. This can go on for years, if — as is the case in many areas — a rental market that was tight before the disaster becomes even more challenging.
How can we help this person recover from their disaster impact and return them to their pre-disaster state? And is that even the right thing to do?
The Second Wave
Even with the help of subsidy programs, people who were already experiencing homelessness before a disaster face increased difficulties finding housing afterwards, as the housing market is overwhelmed by displaced homeowners and renters. Rental rates surge quickly after a disaster — sometimes daily — and property owners may place more restrictions on which tenants they will accept. Some evict lower-income households in favor of tenants who can afford a higher rent. Such behavior can result in a secondary wave of people experiencing homelessness after a disaster. I’ve even seen some owners rent out disaster-damaged rental units without making any repairs, forcing families without other options to live in substandard conditions while paying exorbitant rent. The post-traumatic stress caused by such situations can exacerbate health conditions, lead to depression and substance use, and increase instances of domestic violence.
(Un)fortunately, a string of major disasters in the U.S. over recent years has opened up opportunities to develop more inclusive recovery strategies. And thanks to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and in particular its Special Needs Assistance Programs (SNAPS) office, the definition of the official term “disaster-impacted” is at last beginning to expand.
Drawing on Homeless Services Expertise
After responding to multiple disasters, I can attest that each one is unique. What is not unique, however, is that as each temporary post-disaster recovery program eventually comes to an end, it is always the most vulnerable populations that are left behind — and too often, it is only then that homeless services leaders are brought into the disaster response. This must change. Those of us in the homelessness arena understand that every day is a disaster for people experiencing homelessness, and the knowledge and skills our field can bring should inform response and recovery efforts at every stage.
It used to be that I was only ever brought in at the end of a response to help all those people whom no one else was prepared to help, or who were not considered disaster-impacted, or who were imagined to be somehow gaming the system. (If you have never been inside a disaster shelter, I can tell you that it is not a home, and not somewhere people want to be.) These days, however, I am more often tapped while response and recovery plans are still being developed, and this represents real progress. I have taught Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials what it means to be “couch surfing.” During the Great Flood of 2016 in Louisiana, those of us with homelessness expertise were able to help both HUD and FEMA to officially recognize and define the term “precariously housed.”
Looking Beyond Recovery
By helping those with the fewest resources to become more resilient, a community itself becomes stronger, too — and better prepared for overall disaster recovery. Strategies to support this goal include the development of mixed income rental housing with dedicated units for permanent supportive housing and for extremely low-income households; flexible rapid rehousing programs that provide case management services even after rental assistance ends; supportive services for persons with disabilities; and job creation for low- and moderate-income community members.
Disasters are awful tragedies for communities. However, Louisiana’s disaster-born permanent supportive housing program is a hallmark of recovery from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. You don’t have to go through a hurricane to create a permanent supportive housing program like Louisiana did. But if your community does experience a disaster that triggers an allocation of Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery or other resources, then use that infusion to the best advantage! These resources can allow communities to rebuild beyond simply restoring pre-disaster conditions.
Until it is recognized that all of us are disaster-impacted just by virtue of living in a disaster-impacted area, there will be no equity in recovery efforts. We must think first of those who were already most vulnerable, and find ways not just to return them to their pre-disaster state, but to create more resilient people and communities.
HUD’s Disaster Recovery Homelessness Toolkit includes information and resources for local planning, immediate response, and disaster recovery.
Learn about TAC's technical assistance services in disaster preparedness and recovery.
Improving Homelessness Response Systems in California’s Counties
Under a new contract with California’s Department of Housing and Community Development, TAC is providing capacity-building technical assistance (TA) to help California’s communities enhance their homeless crisis response systems. First, TAC staff traveled with state officials and TA peers to meet with homeless system representatives from around the state, learning about their needs and introducing potential TA resources. Since then, TAC has been engaged by several communities, including Butte County where we are helping with disaster recovery after the devastating 2018 Camp Fire.
In Vermont, a Focus on Ending Youth Homelessness
Through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Vermont Balance of State Continuum of Care became an official Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program site in the summer of 2018. This award provides support to the CoC and its Youth Action Board (YAB) as they develop a plan to prevent and end youth homelessness in 13 of Vermont's 14 counties. TAC Associates Lauren Knott and Ellen Fitzpatrick are helping CoC leaders to develop and drive the planning process - focusing especially on strengthening youth voice, analyzing local data, and defining the CoC's vision for the initiative. With the CoC's written plan to HUD submitted and now approved, TAC is now helping with project selection and the implementation process. TAC staff members were also fortunate to participate in a two-day Youth Collaboration training facilitated on-site by True Colors United and including both YAB members and CoC leaders. TAC has supported the Vermont Balance of State CoC as it incorporate takeaways from this training and creates a system in which authentic youth collaboration is at the forefront of all planning to prevent and end youth homelessness in Vermont.
TAC Staff in Action
More than 700 leaders and managers from Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) grantee organizations attended five regional meetings in January, focused on rapid resolution — with TACsters Phil Allen, Ellen Fitzpatrick, Marie Herb, Ashley Mann-McLellan, Naomi Sweitzer, Douglas Tetrault, and Jim Yates providing coordination and giving presentations; Associate Ashley Mann-McLellan presented on “Designing Coordinated Entry Systems and Prioritization to Better Serve Individual Adults” at the Solutions for Individual Homeless Adults conference sponsored by the National Alliance to End Homelessness (BONUS: Check out Ashley’s blog post on what’s working in coordinated entry!); and Senior Associate Rachel Post led two sessions on Assertive Community Treatment and intensive case management at the Fairbanks (AK) Symposium on Homelessness.