The Way Home’s Response to COVID-19
The Coalition for the Homeless is Lead Agency to The Way Home, the Houston-area Continuum of Care (CoC) and collaborative effort to prevent and end homelessness in Harris, Fort Bend, and Montgomery counties, Texas.
Like for everyone else, our world changed seemingly overnight once the novel coronavirus arrived in Houston. In February, we were focused on wrapping up an encampment resolution initiative and solving chronic homelessness, but by mid-March, we were all doing our best to figure out how to help people in our community experiencing homelessness during a global pandemic.
Here were some of the challenges we confronted in the early days of the pandemic, and how we — collectively The Way Home member agencies with assistance from local governmental entities — handled them:
How do we make sure people experiencing unsheltered homelessness know about COVID-19?
We equipped our outreach teams with flyers to pass out to people living in encampments to make sure they were aware of the novel coronavirus and what relevant steps they could take to protect themselves.
The CDC said “if individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.” But what could we do to help people in encampments stay safe?
We installed handwashing stations at encampments and handed out hygiene kits and masks.
How could we help our emergency shelters practice social distancing?
To help emergency shelters de-densify, we helped to transform a community center into an auxiliary shelter, which continues to be run by the Salvation Army of Greater Houston.
How could we help people experiencing homelessness get tested for COVID?
We worked with the City, County and Healthcare for the Homeless – Houston to launch the Homeless Testing Program.
Homeless agencies, shelters, outreach teams and even those experiencing homelessness can call a hotline. After the patient is assessed over the phone, they are provided transportation via specially outfitted Yellow Cabs to the testing site operated by Healthcare for the Homeless – Houston.
Mobile units run by the City and County’s health departments have also been dispatched to test at shelters.
Where could someone experiencing homelessness stay if they were showing symptoms of — or tested positive for — COVID?
We worked with the City and County to set up a dedicated quarantine and isolation facility where people experiencing homelessness can stay and recover from COVID or wait for their test results. At the facility, which is a hotel that is being leased out specifically for this purpose, shelter, food and medical care are available to help patients self-quarantine and isolate as needed. The Q&I facility is open to individuals referred through the Homeless Testing Program or those who come directly from hospitals.
Once we had tackled some of the immediate concerns of the pandemic, we were able to turn our attention to longer-term solutions. We knew that the most effective public health response to reduce community spread of COVID among people experiencing homelessness would be to ensure that all people experiencing homelessness had a safe, permanent home.
We are fortunate to have a Mayor and a County Commissioners Court that agree with that idea.
On July 1, we stood with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo to announce a joint $65-million plan to house 5,000 people experiencing homelessness over the next two years to limit the spread of COVID-19. We’re calling it the Community-wide COVID-19 Housing Program (CCHP or “chip”). The CCHP is unprecedented coordinated effort on the part of the City and the County to address homelessness in our region!
The City of Houston has dedicated approximately $39 million and Harris County has allocated $18 million to the CCHP; the Coalition is raising the remainder from private sources. The City and County are using a variety of federal funds from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD), including funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
The CCHP will include several strategies depending on individuals’ level of need, including the following:
- Diversion: A program to help approximately 2,000 people who are on the verge of falling into homelessness.
- Rapid rehousing: Short-term (up to 12 months’) rental assistance and light services to help 1,700 people who have recently fallen into homelessness because of COVID.
- A “bridge” to permanent supportive housing (PSH): Housing for approximately 1,000 people who have experienced long-term homelessness.
You can learn more about the CCHP on the Coalition’s website.
Now that it’s mid-August, we’re gearing up to get the CCHP moving. At the Coalition, we’re in the process of hiring a 10-person project management team and four new outreach staff to increase coverage across our CoC geographic region; many more new staff will be hired by the agencies selected by the City and County to implement the program. We’re setting up working groups to design new processes for the “bridge” to PSH and diversion. We’re working with the City and County to identify subrecipients of the CARES Act funding to begin assessing, navigating, and housing people experiencing homelessness.
We look forward to housing 5,000 people by October 2022. Because for people experiencing homelessness, housing is healthcare!