Research Update: Homelessness and COVID-19—A Look into System and Shelter Impacts and Responses in 2020

April 2, 2021

Note: This is excerpted from the March 2021 edition of our “Research Update” publication. The Edmonton Social Planning Council, in collaboration with our volunteers, strives to provide stakeholders and community members with up-to-date reviews, prepared by our volunteers, on recently published social research reports and publications.

A review by Jayme Wong

“System Impacts and Responses” and “Shelter Impacts and Responses” are both part of a three-part series called A Brief Scan of COVID-19 Impacts on People Experiencing Homelessness written by Jakob Koziel, Maria Savidov, and Andrea Frick. The series was published in 2020 by the Bissell Centre, an Edmonton-based non-profit organization that works with communities to empower people to move from poverty toward cultural, social, and economic prosperity. The first part of the series, “Health Impacts and Responses” can be found on the Homeless Hub’s website (see source link).  

Research for part two, “System Impacts and Responses,” and part three, “Shelter Impacts and Responses,” was conducted between March and September, 2020. The authors state in part three that it “is not meant to be an academic paper or systematic review but rather a summary and snapshot of the emerging media reporting and academic investigations of the pandemic’s impact on [vulnerable] populations during a specific timeframe” (p. 4). They suggest that the series’ purpose is to spark further research interest into the links between homelessness and COVID-19. 

Koziel et al. suggest that COVID-19 will cause a greater burden on the hospital care system and that individuals experiencing homelessness “will be twice as likely to be hospitalized and two to four times more likely to require critical care than the general population . . . in addition to a higher infection and fatality rate” (p. 4). In “Shelter Impacts and Responses,” the authors state that transmission rates are especially high among individuals experiencing homelessness due to transiency, challenges to physical distancing in crowded and communal spaces, and the lack of access to personal protective equipment (PPE). 

The number of individuals experiencing homelessness is predicted to increase due to rising trends in unemployment and home evictions. Social service agencies are anticipating an increase in the need for housing support. Providing more options for permanent housing is the best solution to combat COVID-19 among homeless populations, the report suggests. This is due to the fact that permanent housing supports opportunities for isolation and reduces the strain on hospital and shelter space. However, a long-term solution is only possible if access to food, health education, and resources for addiction, mental health, and trauma are also available. 

Temporary housing in hotels or motels is considered the second-best strategy to mitigating system impacts. Converting unused public space into temporary housing is a promising alternative to shelters, which may already be over-capacitated or forced to turn people away due to social distancing measures and limited bed space. However, using public spaces to house individuals experiencing homelessness is not a permanent solution. These public spaces lack the additional resources needed to provide food, hygiene, and testing, and are not staffed with people equipped to deal with trauma, homelessness, and drug use. In part two, Koziel et al. state that “sheltering those experiencing homelessness is the preferential strategy in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 compared to doing nothing” (p. 6). The temporary housing strategy has been successfully utilized in several American and Canadian cities, including Edmonton. 

Despite the significant system and shelter impacts, Koziel et al. note that innovative collaborations have developed as a result of the unique issues posed by COVID-19. These collaborations include partnerships between non-profit organizations and governments to provide more resources to homeless individuals, restaurants and food banks to provide meals to camps and medical services, and even health care providers and telecom companies to provide affordable phone services that help isolated individuals stay connected. 

The reports fail to adequately address responses and strategies on mitigating shelter impacts. Koziel et al. suggest three responses: (1) enforcing protective measures in shelters (e.g., social distancing and PPE), (2) enforcing shelter closures and restrictions, and (3) finding alternatives to shelters. Given the already limited funds and resources accessible to shelters, protective measures are difficult—reduced staffing makes it difficult to consistently and constantly disinfect areas; social distancing in shelters is challenging due to the rising number of individuals facing homelessness. Even the authors admit in part three that, although protective measures are the most effective to prevent the spread of infection, “addiction and mental health challenges among residents, as well as a lack of medical care access, can make it difficult for residents to adhere to public health directives while costs and potential unavailability of PPE may make it difficult to implement PPE procedures” (p. 5–6). Similarly, shelter closures and restrictions may cause more problems for people seeking shelter and additional support, and alternatives to shelters, as discussed in part two, are only temporary solutions. 

While the series was only published in 2020, we are now living the reality of the research predictions. Evidence of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people experiencing homelessness is supported by emerging research. The trends observed within the three-part series will only increase and worsen if social action is not taken immediately. 

Publication Source:

Koziel, J., Savidov, M., & Frick. A. (2020). A brief scan of COVID-19 impacts on people experiencing homelessness. Bissell Centre. 

Get to know our volunteer:

Jayme Wong graduated from the University of Lethbridge in 2014 with a BA in English and Philosophy, and more recently graduated from the University of Alberta in 2020 with an MA in English and Film Studies. She currently works at a local non-profit, the Learning Centre Literacy Association.

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