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Integrating the Needs of Homeless Populations into Disaster Planning: A Toolkit for Practitioners and Decision Makers

Non-profit homeless service organizations constitute a “safety net” for homeless populations, both daily and in times of crisis. Homeless individuals may be particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of a disaster due to extreme poverty, lack of access to housing and other resources, and chronic physical and behavioral health conditions. Services and structures designed to address their needs during disaster are critical to their well-being. VEMEC, US Department of Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development are leading a diverse interagency collaborative that includes governmental, non-profit, and private sector agencies. Together, we are developing a toolkit to help practitioners and policymakers more effectively integrate the needs of homeless populations into disaster preparedness, planning, and response. This toolkit was derived from VEMEC’s prior work identifying gaps in preparedness among organizations that provide shelter and transitional housing for people experiencing homelessness.

In 2012, VEMEC investigators conducted interviews and surveys of key staff, and reviewed disaster plans, of 6 non-profit organizations that provide housing and shelter to homeless individuals in a major metropolitan area. We evaluated three dimensions of organizational preparedness: life safety, continuity of service operations, and collaboration and partnerships. Potential disaster impacts and barriers to preparedness were also examined. These findings were initially translated into policy recommendations through the 2013 Workshop on Integrating Homeless Populations into Disaster Preparedness, Planning, and Response, and are a key basis for the toolkit to integrate homeless populations into disaster recovery efforts.

The toolkit, which outlines recommendations for best practices, policies, and further research to improve organizational preparedness, focuses on three priority areas:

Clinical Guidance for Healthcare Providers
Chronic physical and behavioral health conditions within the homeless population are often exacerbated during disasters. Clinicians with experience caring for homeless individuals are critical during disasters, but pre-event training and just-in-time guidance will enhance the ability of all clinicians to provide care to this vulnerable population.

Communication and Coordination
Targeted planning is necessary to ensure that homeless populations and their service providers receive emergency communications as well as coordinate effectively. Homeless services providers should be included in emergency managers’ disaster planning, response, and recovery activities.

Training and Technical Assistance to CBO Service Providers
Training and technical assistance are needed to ensure that community based organizations (CBOs) can continue to provide services to those who were homeless prior to the disaster, as well as those who become homeless because of the disaster.