A looming eviction crisis is rightfully garnering a lot of attention: millions of renter households are at risk of eviction because of COVID-19. But another crisis is unfolding that’s received much less attention: homeless shelters are closed or operating at limited capacity.

In the winter, communities typically expand their shelter capacity through hypothermia or warming programs to bring people in from the cold. These programs are essential for preventing people from dying outside. This year, communities and the people experiencing homelessness already are struggling with diminished shelter capacity and, for large portions of the US, winter is already here.

COVID-19 is limiting congregate shelters’ capacity
Early in the pandemic, communities saw rapid spread in homeless shelters, particularly in congregate settings, where people shared living and sleeping spaces, sometimes in beds, cots, or bunks that were very close to one another. In Boston, more than one in three of the people residing in a large congregate shelter tested positive for COVID-19. And San Francisco paused shelter entries in late March to enact public health strategies that would limit capacity. These cities were not alone; shelters are closed or have been temporarily closed in jurisdictions across the country. Some closed to implement public health strategies, and others closed because of diminished staff and volunteers.

Local responses haven’t been enough
One major response to shelter concerns during the pandemic was for jurisdictions to secure hotel rooms to provide people experiencing homelessness safe, temporary housing. This strategy helped isolate people who were symptomatic and provided shelter to people in high-risk groups, such as older people or those with preexisting medical conditions that could make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

Efforts to secure hotel rooms were necessary, but they couldn’t meet the needs of all people currently experiencing homelessness and haven’t been sufficient to offset the loss of congregate shelter capacity.

Where do we go from here?
The simplest way to deal with a lack of shelter capacity is to quickly house people. Rent assistance resources from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act could help rapidly re-house people experiencing homelessness in shelters, hotels, and unsheltered locations. It would give them a place to live safe from COVID-19 and the cold.

Read the full article about winter, COVID-19 and homelessness by Samantha Batko at Urban Institute.