Access more information on Pandemic Planning for the Homelessness sector at the Homelessness Learning Hub. 

Street art outside shelter

Picture Credit: Photo taken by @NaheedD. Mural painted by Anthony Schofield. 

I want to open with a sincere thanks to everyone who reads this blog, knowing that you are working hard at the frontlines, advocating for emergent best practices, or guiding the housing and homelessness system through this difficult time. Your advocacy has been heard and all orders of government are introducing special measures and funding to support those experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 outbreak.

However, today’s research review is to address the question of whether there is more or better that we can be doing?

Michael Falconi, Christine Fahim, and Tracey O’Sullivan from the University of Ottawa and Elisabeth Bruyère Research Institute offer advice in “Protecting and supporting high risk populations in pandemic: Drawing from experiences with influenza A (H1N1)”. This qualitative study involved 43 interviews with professionals and volunteers from health services who were actively engaged in responding to the H1N1 outbreak in 2009. They particularly look at the practices that naturally evolved out of the crisis that proved promising.

Their recommendations include:

  1. Have communication networks ready to go for front-line service organizations. For example, all agency ED’s should have an up-to-date contact list at all times of all other agency ED’s.
  2. Have pre-determined partnerships so that each organization can focus on what it can do best and provide targeted services. Specific examples might mean that a local food bank takes on central management of all food collection and distribution across all shelter services, or that public health shifts nurses to focus all their work on screening with nurses from the local AIDS committee taking over outreach.
  3. Have materials available specifically for people experiencing homelessness. Mis-information is high during a pandemic, this can be mitigated by having specific materials available early clearly and simply describing the contagion and basic protective measures.
  4. Ensure that protective and responsive health services are prioritized to people at an increased health risk. Due to the congregate living conditions of emergency shelters and the high rates of morbidity among people experiencing homelessness, this population should be considered a priority for access to PPE, vaccination when available, and housing supports to decrease person-to-person contact.
  5. Volunteers need to continue to be mobilized. The high resource demands of a pandemic are not fully met or sustainable with a regular staff compliment. Find ways for volunteers to continue to be engaged in the work including dedicated training on appropriate protection of self and others.

While some of these recommendations might be too late for some communities, there are important considerations here. For example, while most organizations are now limiting staff and volunteers on-site, are you prepared to re-engage volunteers on very short notice should the crisis escalate or should on-site staff become ill or quarantined? Secondly, have you communicated with other organizations services that you might be able to offer for their clients or services you are hoping they can replace for you?

Nationally, regarding the 4th recommendation, as vaccines or treatments become available, people experiencing homelessness should be considered high priority for early access.

Take care of yourselves and hopefully some of these recommendations may be of use.

This is part of a blog series by Abe Oudshoorn, which explores recent research on homelessness, and what it means for the provision of services to prevent or end homelessness. See the full series here