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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


Rapid Assessment Tools for Responders to Address Needs of Individuals Experiencing Homelessness during Disasters

Author: Cheryl A. Levine, Ph.D., Senior Policy Analyst & Team Lead for At-Risk Individuals, ASPR’s Division for At-Risk Individuals, Behavioral Health & Community Resilience
Published Date: 9/19/2017 1:17:00 PM
Category: Public Health Preparedness; Response & Recovery; National Health Security;

Natural disasters and emergencies – such as hurricanes, flooding and other extreme weather conditions – create challenges and significantly impact communities. The recent destruction and devastation caused by this year’s hurricanes highlight concerns for the addressing the disaster needs of impacted populations.

Of special concern during these events are at-risk individuals – these include people with access and functional needs that may interfere with their ability to access or receive medical care before, during, or after a disaster or emergency. Under federal civil rights laws, many at-risk populations are protected from discrimination in emergency situations to ensure equal access to certain health and human services. Integration of at-risk populations into emergency planning is critical to ensure the safety and well-being of the whole community and compliance with civil rights laws.

Whole community planning for response and recovery activities must include the effective integration of at-risk populations, such people experiencing homelessness. Individuals and families experiencing homelessness face unique obstacles during disasters. Those experiencing homelessness are especially vulnerable due to limited resources and fewer connections to their communities. Healthcare providers offering aid to people experiencing homelessness must recognize the increased prevalence of medical and psychiatric conditions. Additionally, the increased demand on the healthcare systems during disasters can stretch the capacity of providers to address immediate needs. These compounding factors can become barriers to accessing or receiving medical care during or following disasters such as the 2017 hurricanes.

In order to be prepared to respond to and support the long-term recovery needs of individuals and families experiencing homelessness, there are tools and resources that homeless-serving providers and disaster professional can use to ensure access to healthcare and behavioral health needs. To assist communities in planning for such disaster, HHS joined the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Housing and Urban Developing in creating a toolkit called Disaster Preparedness to Promote Community Resilience Information and Tools for Homeless Service Providers and Disaster.

This toolkit provides a practical overview of challenges that may occur during disaster-caused disruptions and the impact of these challenges for people who experience homelessness. The toolkit also provides guidance for identifying and collaborating with partners to address disaster response and recovery needs of homeless community members and outlines strategies to engage in preparedness and minimize service disruption from a disaster.

Furthermore, the toolkit specifies how to enhance the capacity of healthcare settings with providers experienced in serving people who are homeless, and provide expanded care following a disaster or public health emergency. The toolkit is a significant new resource to enhance communities’ preparedness in the face of natural disasters and public health emergencies.

When disasters strike, the vulnerabilities of all at-risk populations become exacerbated. Ensuring individuals experiencing homelessness and other at-risk individuals can access needed services is pivotal in withstanding and recovering from adversity.​


What about the Elderly? Comment by Erin D.

While I think that creating a toolkit for the 1.56 million homeless during disasters is a wonderful initiative, I worry that we are forgetting an arguably more vulnerable population-- the elderly in nursing homes. Currently, there are 1.3 million elderly living in nursing homes. Because the rates for neglect in nursing homes have been measured to be up to 95% (Nursing Home Abuse Center, 2009), there is a very great risk that elderly in nursing homes may be abandoned during disasters. Following Hurricane Harvey, pictures of nursing homes filled with elderly waiting to be rescued surfaced. I would love to see another initiative to help this extremely vulnerable and at-risk population.
9/26/2017 12:54:33 PM

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