Helping the Homeless Population During Natural Disasters

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The January 2017 Point-in-Time count estimated there were 553,742 homeless people living in the United States. While the homeless face many challenges, this population’s vulnerability during natural disasters and extreme weather conditions requires special attention.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by Eastern Kentucky University’s Online Safety, Security & Emergency Management Program.

How individuals can help the homeless when a natural disaster strikes.

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Natural Disasters & Homelessness

Homeless people, in the US and around the world, are impacted by natural disasters that often strike without warning. These vulnerable individuals face unique threats, and officials often struggle to protect them.

American Homeless Individuals in 2017

Studies determined that 66.7% of the homeless population in 2017 were single, meaning one in three were individuals in families. It was also determined that 7.2% of the homeless population were veterans. Additionally, studies indicated 34% of the homeless lived in a place not suited for human habitation, like the street or an abandoned building. Finally, studies calculated that 7.4% of homeless people were unaccompanied children and young adults.

Threats to Homeless Population

The threats to homeless individuals are widespread and come from numerous situations. Some of these threats include trauma, worsening mental health conditions, losing tent or sleeping space, and increased risk of aggression or violence imposed by others, being unaware of extreme weather warnings, or being uninformed of local disaster response.

Challenges to Protecting the Homeless in the Face of Natural Disasters

Extra effort is required to communicate warnings and calls for evacuation. This is because homeless people are generally skeptical of police officers. Because of this skepticism, first responders are typically charged with communicating with the homeless. It also means that officers struggle to keep homeless individuals safe, which may lead to creative community thinking. For instance, Miami officials invoked Florida’s Baker Act to temporarily incarcerate presumably mentally ill homeless individuals who chose to stay outside and face Hurricane Irma.

Surviving the Storm

Recovering from disaster is the longest and most challenging step in disaster response. However, developing a strategy to prevent and respond to natural disasters can help substantially reduce the negative consequences.

Preventative Measures

To create an inclusive emergency response management system, organizations and governments must make certain provisions to include the homeless population. These include understanding the needs of local homeless individuals, building relationships with homeless service providers (HSPs), developing a disaster response strategy and timeline, establishing agreements and contracts with HSPs, and communicating with homeless individuals.

Tips to Assisting Homeless Individuals During Disasters

One of the key elements in helping the homeless in crisis situations is demonstrating sensitivity to homeless individuals’ mental health and being aware of triggers for traumatic symptoms, like chaotic surroundings or a lack of privacy. It’s also important to remember that more than 90% of American homeless mothers have been severely physically or sexually abused, and that more than 80% of American homeless children have witnessed violence by age 12. Additionally, it’s important to recognize the stages of coping with trauma (that is, shock, denial, anger, grief and acceptance). Finally, it’s vital to train service providers to understand how trauma impacts behavioral and physical health.

Natural Disaster Response for Homeless Individuals

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services outlines several steps that ideally should be adhered to in order to help the homeless during natural disasters. The first step is to ensure physical safety. Once established, it’s important to support emotional and psychological well-being by providing psychological first aid. Next, one should make sure the homeless parents and their children are kept together. After this, it’s important to arrange for food, shelter and transportation. Next, the individual needs across age and sex should be addressed via connecting homeless individuals with appropriate service providers. Finally, it’s important to oversee to follow-up care.

Homeless Advocacy Resources

There are several advocacy resources that homeless individuals can tap into to get assistance. Some resources, such as the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP), and the National Coalition for the Homeless, offer protection, homeless prevention, and legal services. Government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) also offer homeless help.

Some advocacy resource groups specialize in one aspect of homelessness. The Bridge of Hope Foundation, for instance, assists low-income care facility residents, individuals living with disabilities, and those struggling with homelessness and mental illness. The national nonprofit organization Standup for Kids strives to empower homeless youths across 11 states and 18 cities via counseling, mentoring and life skills training. The organization Family Promise’s mission is to “help homeless and low-income families achieve sustainable independence through a community-based response.” Another resource, Bureau of Primary Health Care, oversees funding for primary and preventative health care for homeless individuals through local community-based organizations. Finally, the National Health Care for the Homeless Council acts as a resource for community resources, as nonprofits and local communities can access guides and useful information for helping homeless individuals recover from natural disasters.


Emergency response during natural disasters requires understanding the needs of diverse populations, including the homeless. The effectiveness of emergency response programs serving homeless populations will be measured by organizations’ disaster preparedness, willingness to collaborate and sensitivity to homeless individuals’ unique needs.