The recently passed $2 trillion stimulus package includes a suite of measures designed to support households being impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. However, policymakers may want to consider what protections it offers to a particularly high-risk group: people experiencing homelessness. Will the $4 billion for emergency homeless services and the $1,200 stimulus checks that the bill provides to support this population adequately address sheltering and service needs? Or perhaps more importantly, it might be worth examining whether, without additional support, both people experiencing homelessness and the broader general population would continue to face risks associated with COVID-19.

Examining the COVID-19 outbreak from a disaster research perspective helps illuminate why people experiencing homelessness may need more support than what the stimulus package offers. Disaster research has developed an understanding of risk as more than an intrinsic property of a hazard. Risk is also socially constructed, the result of societal forces marginalizing certain segments of the population, and shaping exposure, vulnerability, and capacity. Exposure refers to the people or systems in a hazard zone. Vulnerability is the characteristics or circumstances that make people or systems susceptive to damage. And capacity is the strengths and resources that can be used to mitigate risk.

Although disaster impacts vary within different groups, people experiencing homelessness are often highly impacted by disasters due to their high levels of exposure and vulnerability and limited capacity.

While the stimulus package offers resources for people experiencing homelessness, according to colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University, the $4 billion for emergency homeless services included in the package is far short of the estimated $11.5 billion in new costs (PDF) required to shelter people from the outbreak. They point out that this amount does not even include future costs that are sure to be borne. One of the largest benefits from the package, stimulus checks, may not help either. Many individuals who are currently experiencing homelessness may not receive the $1,200 stimulus checks that the package provides because they do not have a mailing address, may not have their banking information on file with the IRS, and face more barriers accessing information.

What would a support package look like that might better address the needs of people experiencing homelessness? Policymakers could consider allocating funding to reduce exposure in shelters by screening individuals who are using shelters for symptoms of COVID-19; using convention centers and other large spaces where social distancing can be practiced as alternative shelters; and providing hand sanitizer, soap, and other resources to reduce contamination. Another option could be offering people their own rooms or apartments to facilitate social distancing. Policymakers could also consider strengthening health care programs to reduce vulnerability associated with preexisting physical and behavioral health issues. And, to improve capacity, serious efforts might need to be made to ensure stimulus checks reach everyone, including people experiencing homelessness. Of course, more funding for institutions focusing on homelessness would certainly be worth considering as well.

Implementing options like these could result in less risk—for people experiencing homelessness, the workers who provide homeless services, and for all of us.

Read the full about emergency homeless services by Aaron Clark-Ginsberg, Sarah B. Hunter, and Benjamin Henwood at RAND Corporation.