On any given day during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, dozens of tents can be seen scattered across Washington-Jefferson Park near downtown Eugene. Each week, the number of tents seems to increase.
When both federal and local governments advised people to shelter in place, tent fabric was all some unhoused folks had to battle against the disease that is still ravaging communities across the U.S.
Throughout the pandemic, the city of Eugene has been criticized for its response to the plight of the homeless by closing parks and sweeping camps at a higher rate than pre-pandemic times, according to a May investigation by Eugene Weekly and The Catalyst Journalism Project. Local service providers agree that this was a wake up call: In the face of disaster, whether it be a pandemic or extreme weather generated by climate change, the emergency response for the unhoused needs to be more coordinated.
Meanwhile, more than 2,000 miles away in the Midwest, one Ohio county was successful in acting quickly to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among unhoused people by being disaster ready. Both service providers and local governing bodies in Cuyahoga County, which encompasses Cleveland, acted swiftly in a coordinated effort that both reduced the number of people living unsheltered in the streets, and the number of unhoused folks contracting COVID-19, by removing people from shelters and placing people in hotels.
“I think the organizing was pretty fluid because people saw a need right away,” says Chris Knestrick, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH).
According to the 2020 Point-in-Time count, a survey of unhoused people living in an area, Cleveland has about 500 unhoused people per 100,000. This is a similar per-capita rate to Lane County, which has 566 unhoused individuals per 100,000.
NEOCH, Cuyahoga County and other service providers were able to house a total of 1,378 individuals across five hotels as of July 2021. In working with Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries, which runs the largest shelter in the state, they were able to decrease shelter capacity by roughly 50 percent.
And while Lane County’s unsheltered homeless population increased in 2020, Cleveland reduced its rate of unsheltered homelessness by 30 percent.
There will be more disasters. There may even be more pandemics. Cuyahoga County is much larger in population and has access to more resources, but the marshaling of resources and the housing of people in hotels is a model Lane County can look to.
A local response to disasters
Jason Davis, public information officer for Lane County’s Health and Human Services, says when the pandemic started, the county had to respond to several different factors, including the Labor Day wildfire along the McKenzie River.
“We had a varied response because, especially this last year, ‘unhoused’ applied to a very diverse group of people,” Davis says. “It could be people who just a few months ago had a house on the McKenzie River and now they are unhoused, and it could be people who are chronically homeless and are living primarily on the streets, to people who live in shelters.”
Davis says in the beginning of March 2020, the county grappled with the CDC recommendations of sheltering in place, while understanding that often the homeless are transient.
At the same time, agencies like St. Vincent de Paul and the Eugene Mission — which provide overnight shelter options — had to reduce the number of people staying at their shelters to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“We knew early on that congregate shelters would be an issue, because of the close congregate living,” says Sheryl Balthrop, executive director of the Eugene Mission. She adds that they were also concerned because they didn’t want to turn folks out on the street during the pandemic.
Davis says the county worked with St. Vinnie’s to set up shelter and sanitation services, and also put hand washing and sanitizing stations downtown. He says they also set up a temporary shelter at the Lane County Fairgrounds and that the county tried to secure PPE for folks, remembering that in early 2020 personal protective equipment such as masks was difficult to come by.
In early May, as testing became more available, the county began going out into communities and testing people for COVID-19. Davis says they first started seeing cases at the end of the summer, when homeless people were offered respite at the Lane County Fairgrounds. He says a fraction of the overall cases in the community came from the unhoused.
“Then, our service providers would step up and say, ‘We could do that,’ and then they would start doing it. So White Bird took a big role in testing,” Davis says.
He says as they were testing they also began utilizing vouchers to put up unhoused people who tested positive for COVID, although he says it took some convincing for hotels to take in those infected with the virus. In fall 2020, the county used grant money to buy the old Red Lion Hotel in Eugene and provide housing for those who became unhoused during the Holiday Farm Fire. The Eugene Mission had a COVID outbreak in December that infected 69 people between staff and the homeless.
Meanwhile, the city of Eugene continued to sweep homeless camps and released continually changing guidance on where and how people could shelter in place. The Catalyst and EW investigation found that the city of Eugene uprooted unhoused people at a rate 40 percent higher than it did during pre-COVID days.
Heather Sielicki, who works with Carry It Forward and advocates for disaster management, acknowledges the ways that Lane County, the city of Eugene and nonprofits did help the homeless during COVID-19 and other disasters in 2020, but she says the response was scattered.
“I know all the people involved and everyone did the best they could,” Sielicki says. “But I don’t think we used our resources necessarily as effectively as we could have.”
She says that during the stacked disasters — that’s when two disaster scenarios happen on top of one another — of COVID-19 and extreme weather, the county and city could have acted more swiftly. When the wildfire smoke engulfed the state, it took Eugene and the county days before offering the Lane County Fairgrounds as a respite center.
“There’s a real disconnect around who is worthy to respond to. And that’s what I learned in the fires is, we all have different ideas around where the greatest need is, and what the greatest good is,” Sielicki says.
Sielicki says that while COVID-19 was an unprecedented disaster, the current scattering of unhoused services between government and nonprofits doesn’t lend itself to a quick, effective response.
“With our current system, it is almost impossible to scale up. Because we don’t really have a central organization to manage volunteers and donations, we don’t have a warehouse where things can go,” she says. “So every disaster we’re kind of creating a new system.”
A model that works
In the Midwest, Cuyahoga County took a different approach to the pandemic. And its success is the result of preparedness.
Cuyahoga County surrounds the Cleveland metro area and borders Lake Erie. The pandemic did not spare Cleveland, and the area also has its share of extreme weather, most often in the form of extreme cold or snowstorms.
When COVID-19 became a concern, both county officials and service providers worked together to de-congregate the shelter by housing people in hotels and providing them with PPE and meals. Because of this, they were effective at mitigating the number of cases of COVID among the unhoused, and took extra precautions for those who were at high risk.
Michael Sering, vice president for housing and shelter with Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries, says early nationwide COVID projections predicted infection rates of about 40 percent for homeless populations. But by housing folks at hotels and keeping them distanced, the local men’s shelter — the largest in the state — has a positivity rate of 4.3 percent.
“We were terrified, you know, because they are the most vulnerable, compromised people with the least access to healthcare,” Sering says. “So for us to have that 4.3 percent is just really telling of success from these combined efforts.”
At first, they started out by diverting those at risk of homelessness, says Bill Faith, the executive director of the Coalition on Housing and Homelessness In Ohio (COHHIO), a statewide provider that focuses on ending homelessness. For example, they provided gift cards for groceries.
But those who couldn’t be diverted needed somewhere to go. Melissa Sirak, director of the office of homeless services for Cuyahoga County, said they first looked at the concentration of shelters. The men’s shelter is the largest in the state with 400 men, and the women’s shelter can host 200 women.
“From there we started reaching out to hotels to see if they would be willing to work with us,” Sirak says.
In April 2020, after identifying the five hotels that were available, they began identifying who was the most vulnerable and those who may be symptomatic so they had a place to isolate themselves. One hotel was also set up as a COVID recovery space, in partnership with the local health system.
Sirak says they received funding through the CARES Act and emergency solution grant money. In the beginning of the pandemic, Sirak says foundations came together and created special funds for a rapid COVID response. Sirak says the foundations have the flexibility to get the money out more quickly.
“That in conjunction with our ability to coordinate really led to a quick and strong response,” Sirak says.
Faith says they also developed a COVID screening tool in the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), a database of the local homeless population, so that providers could help track cases in the homeless system and identify those with greater health complications and ensure they were taken care of.
By housing people in hotels they were able to reduce the shelter capacity by about 50 percent, while also focusing efforts on providing PPE and helping some transition into supportive housing. Sering says it is difficult to know how long people were housed in hotels, because some stayed for a while and others left and then came back.
Knestrick of NEOCH says the organization of this response was overall pretty fluid. Part of this, he says, is because the county has a well organized collaborative Continuum of Care program. A Continuum of Care program is a local planning body that coordinates housing services and funding from federal and state grants. Most counties in the country are a part of the program, including Lane County.
The Continuum of Care for Cuyahoga County consists of 40 nonprofits with 300 programs, Sirak says, which have in the past been generally good at communicating.
“I’ve never seen more coordination and strategic funding with resources. And people were kind of pulling together to coordinate those pieces and then communicating what’s needed,” Sirak says.
And while Eugene struggled with sweeping camps and ticketing, Knestrick says the unhoused are generally left alone when camping and do not get ticketed for it in Cleveland.
Knestrick adds that putting people in emergency shelters allowed service providers to transition the unhoused into permanent housing.
“When private and safe emergency shelter is being offered, people are more likely to want shelter,” he says. “And that allowed us to move onto the next kind of housing, like move them into permanent supportive housing and get stuff done for them.”
Cuyahoga County nonprofits say their response was largely effective. And they have the numbers to back it up. But in coordinating a large scale operation, there were obstacles.
The first challenge was securing funding. Sering says that in this kind of disaster response it’s difficult to have funds readily available. They were lucky to have local foundations that came together and provided grants, but that they had to pull those things together quickly.
“I think that was a challenge,” Sering says, adding, “But not in a bad way. It just took a lot of work.” Getting funding from foundations is not always an option in every disaster. And FEMA money usually becomes available in the case of disasters, such as the Holiday Farm Fire in Lane County, but that funding is not immediate and more often goes towards helping those displaced by the disaster.
The availability of hotels is another ongoing issue. When COVID-19 first started, Knestrick says, hotels were pretty willing to house people because travel had come to a halt. They had no one else to hold in those rooms. He says as COVID-19 restrictions eased up and vaccinations became more prevalent, hotels were ready to open up to the world again.
“Early on, the industry was decimated. And now we are having a harder time finding hotels that are open to it,” he says. For Lane County, this would also be an issue. In June 2021, thousands of people came to town for the U.S. Track and field Olympic trials, taking up hotel rooms across the Eugene-Springfield area.
Balthrop of the Eugene Mission says putting people in hotels during disasters requires frontline workers or volunteers to step up and take risks in order to help those who are unhoused.
“We also need to think about the impact on vulnerable individuals who are cleaning rooms and taking care of the restrooms,” Balthrop says. She adds that she is pleased for those getting housing and being protected from the elements through a solution like this, but asks if in some ways the risk is being shifted.
Balthrop explained that a number of staff at the Mission had family members contract COVID from them. She says a good approach to this would be to compensate those who do help in shelters for the unhoused, instead of putting the burden on volunteers.
Becoming disaster ready in Lane County
Part of what made Cuyahoga County’s response so effective was that established disaster planning service providers and the county had coordinated. Though COVID-19 was not something most places were prepared for, organizers already had good communications.
“We’ve had different disaster plans for cold weather, like if we get some crazy blizzard. So that’s helpful. But those spaces we put people in weren’t COVID proof, so some of those strategies didn’t work for the pandemic,” Sering says.
The bottom line: Lane County needs to be more organized in order to respond to the unhoused population quickly. Some local advocates are already working on this.
“It needs to be a response that’s got room for everybody — faith based organizations, nonprofits, community volunteers and government,” says Jared Pruch, director of community impact for United Way of Lane County. Pruch also works with the Lane County Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD).
He says organizations like St. Vincent and Egan Warming Centers have volunteers doing heroic things every year, but it’s difficult to rely on only volunteers when it comes to disasters.
If you have a winter storm stacked on COVID, he says, then you have a multiplying factor to the disaster that makes it really hard.
“We are going to continue to have more climate related weather disasters,” Pruch says. “We’ve had two events in the last four years where air quality is hazardous.” He says the community hasn’t yet developed the kind of muscle memory or capacity that it needs to handle these things.
To work towards a solution, Pruch explains, is complicated because ideally, helping people find homes is the most important goal. Finding them temporary shelter is just a bandaid.
“So there is a systemic solution we need to be working towards,” he says. But when it comes to disasters, having an individual level of preparedness is helpful. Pruch says that if he has his “go bag” ready, then he can spend more time helping United Way when a disaster happens.
Sielicki is also pushing for a more coordinated response. She is meeting with Lane County’s Emergency Management next month to talk about moving to a “code blue” and “code red” system. This would create a community-wide response to extreme weather that is either hot or cold.
“For example, when we had that heat wave, what I saw in the community is you had a ton of good Samaritans showing up with water and ice to all the places that there was already running water,” Sielicki says, adding that some people couldn’t leave their tent sites to go get respite for fear of getting their items stolen.
Sielicki says that the struggle, too, is that local governments can’t do everything. If they are responding to a community-wide disaster, the funding gets trickled down from the federal level, and many times the county and city don’t have the capacity to organize services for every person. If there was more planning involved, service providers would have a clearer idea of when to step up. For example, Crisis Assistance and Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) works in lieu of police response to transport individuals to service providers and shelters. But there is no designated plan for them during extreme weather events.
“The city of Eugene doesn’t even have a plan for how to use CAHOOTS when in a freeze. Maybe they will pick up people for Egan, but there is nothing official. So it’s just kind of uncoordinated,” she says.
She adds that Lane County, like other communities, could set up a memorandum of understanding (MOU) which details that in certain hazards and disasters, service providers will be reimbursed a certain amount of money so they can be fully empowered to respond.
When asked for advice in implementing an emergency response modeled after Cuyahoga County, Sirak says of her county that it is critical to work as closely as possible with the Continuum of Care and relationships with other foundations.
“I think those relationships are necessary and critical in normal times. But even more so in a crisis, right? So if those aren’t cultivated, work on cultivating them first for daily operations so that you can lean on them,” Sirak says.
For Lane County, the pandemic, the wildfire smoke and the heatwave are evidence that extreme events will continue. And the unhoused are some of the most at risk, as most just have the belongings on their back and a tent to battle against hazards, while also living in fear that their camp might get swept at any moment.
“I think it was a wake up call for the county and the city in a way,” Sielicki says. “Just that we need to really get this under control before things keep getting worse.”