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  • DRR Voices blog: 7 Mar 2018 June L. Gin

    Veterans Emergency Management Evaluation Center (VEMEC)

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June L. Gin

Veterans Emergency Management Evaluation Center (VEMEC) (VEMEC)

June L. Gin is a Research Health Scientist at Veterans Emergency Management Evaluation Center (VEMEC). She works to create evidence-based tools and resources to improve disaster preparedness in community-based organizations (CBOs) serving homeless veterans. She leads projects to strengthen the safety net during disasters for individuals experiencing homelessness.

Including people experiencing homelessness in community disaster planning

Published on 07 Mar 2018

Los Angeles Skid Row Homeless Point-in-Time Count. Photo by June L. Gin
​Los Angeles Skid Row Homeless Point-in-Time Count. Photo by June L. Gin

For people experiencing homelessness, natural disasters such hurricanes, floods, and wildfires can not only threaten their daily survival, they can also hinder their efforts to find housing and employment. In Puerto Rico, where homelessness was already on the rise with a 12% unemployment rate, Hurricane Maria worsened the situation. Hurricane Irma led police officers in Miami to move people off the streets and into shelters in advance of the storm, and Hurricane Harvey displaced over 400,000 families.

People who are homeless during disasters and public health emergencies also experience social stigma, and are thus often marginalized in access to disaster services. During the San Diego Hepatitis A outbreak, Hurricane Irma, and the California wildfires, individuals experiencing homelessness were perceived as threats to communities.

As these disasters were unfolding, communities affected by these events also realized that incorporating homeless populations into their planning for disasters would have helped mitigate the severity of these events. For instance, homeless individuals may not evacuate or take other life-protective measures due to lack of information and distrust of official messengers, ultimately putting themselves and others at risk as a result.

Integrating people experiencing homelessness into disaster planning is a challenge. Homeless service providers are not always well connected to emergency management and disaster relief organizations. Local non-profit organizations may lack adequate plans for continuity of services, and health care services tailored to the needs of people experiencing homelessness may not be available. Many organizations that provide essential daily services and help individuals exit homelessness have not taken preparedness actions, particularly planning to ensure their ability to continue service delivery.

To address these challenges, a new toolkit—Disaster Preparedness to Promote Community Resilience: Information and Tools for Homeless Service Providers and Disaster Professionals— offers communities resources and guidance to ensure that the needs of individuals experiencing homelessness are included in disaster planning, response, and recovery. A U.S. federal interagency team of researchers and practitioners developed the toolkit by consulting with over 50 subject matter experts with experience in emergency management, public health, and homeless services to distill best practices and lessons learned.

This toolkit provides an overview of the challenges that occur during and after disasters and the impact of those challenges on people experiencing homelessness. It provides guidance to help homeless providers and emergency managers collaborate to address homeless individuals’ disaster needs, and outlines strategies for homeless-serving organizations and health care providers to avoid disruption of services. The publication further describes how healthcare settings can enhance their capacity by working with providers experienced in working with people who are homeless.

The toolkit is divided into three sections:

  • Creating an Inclusive Emergency Management System
  • Guidance for Homeless Service Providers: Planning for Service Continuity
  • Guidance for Health Care Providers

Communities engaged in best practices have already reaped the benefits of increased collaboration. In San Diego, a recent Hepatitis A outbreak prompted public health officials to build stronger ties with homeless outreach organizations to address the need for handwashing stations to curb disease spread. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, communities in the U.S. leveraged the strengths of homeless service providers and their clients to warn unsheltered homeless to take protective measures.  Philadelphia’s public health department collaborated with organizations serving at-risk populations. After Hurricane Irma, Florida American Red Cross chapters built on their strong relationships with homeless organizations to work with individuals in shelters who needed to find permanent housing. Not only did this relationship prevent hurricane-affected individuals from becoming homeless, it also enabled the Red Cross chapters to close the disaster shelters more quickly. These lessons exemplify the toolkit as a living document.

This toolkit is a joint product of the Veterans Emergency Management Evaluation Center (VEMEC) within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Special Needs Assistance Programs office within U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. For more information, please contact June Gin at                 

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