By Indiana Lee
While natural disasters occur frequently, the general population receives alerts, evacuation information, and other resources from news channels, non-profit organizations, and agencies. These resources help people prepare for a disaster, minimizing injuries and loss of life. Those of us who prepare for the unexpected with emergency shelter, food, and other resources have contingency plans in place. But for the homeless population, natural disasters bring a whole set of challenges that the general population doesn’t ever face.
The natural disaster warnings that your average population receives through text messages, alerts on their TVs, and radio emergency messages rarely reach the homeless population. Because these individuals have few to no resources such as shelter, access to transportation, or even the ability to evacuate, they have limited options in riding out a natural disaster. Homeless people can lose everything in a disaster and have no way to replace items like cars, which may have previously been their source of shelter.
Communities and individuals can create action plans that help those without homes prepare for and survive a disaster. Natural disasters will always be a threat, and while our current emergency alert and preparation efforts can help to keep most people in the path of a disaster safe, our most vulnerable populations need additional, specialized help.
Establish Natural Disaster Shelters
Many homeless live on the streets or in abandoned buildings or bunkers and have limited access to shelters that often reach their capacity limits. Local communities need to take this into consideration when establishing natural disaster shelters. When communities plan disaster shelters, they should also think about whether homeless people will have the transportation needed to get to the shelters.
The homeless often live on the outskirts of cities, and these areas can be vulnerable to issues like flooding if the cities are bordered by water. In circumstances like this, communities need to establish multi-step plans, including ways to communicate with these vulnerable populations face-to-face, coordination with transportation providers and shelters, and an evacuation plan for these areas. Part of this plan should include verifying that the homeless populations have evacuated with an in-person check of the areas.
To make sure that all people can safely evacuate and get to disaster shelters, communities can set up evacuation assembly points at locations like soup kitchens and homeless shelters. From there, buses or other vehicles can transport these people to disaster shelters. Communities can also provide gas cards to help those who have cars save their vehicles and evacuate.
Provide Accessible Medical Care
Access to quality healthcare is a frequent challenge for the homeless because of transportation issues and lack of funding. In some cases, they may not be able to understand or follow through on healthcare information and advice. When the community’s resources are strained and public transportation is not running after a disaster, it can be even more difficult for them to get the medical care they need.
Communities and disaster relief programs can provide mobile medical care operations to help solve the transportation barrier. Creating partnerships between rural healthcare facilities, hospitals, and local service centers can also create a network of support that makes it easier for the homeless to access both immediate medical care and follow-up appointments.
Public messaging can also play an important role in encouraging this population to seek the medical care that they need. Public outreach can help spread the word about standard healthcare programs available to low-income individuals. When disasters strike, communities need to develop specific outreach (such as on-the-ground, face-to-face outreach) about where free medical care is offered to connect with homeless populations who may not have access to radio, internet, and other typical messaging platforms.
Offer Ongoing Support
Many businesses have contingency plans in place for rebuilding and minimizing damage during a natural disaster. While homeowners may have insurance that can help them start to get reestablished after a disaster hits, the same is not true of many individuals, particularly the homeless. For such individuals living in their cars or on the street, a disaster can leave them with nothing and no way to replace what was lost.
Communities need to plan for both the immediate and the long-term effects of a disaster on homeless populations. Natural disasters can disrupt support services, from soup pantries to public transportation to shelters. Lost income from jobs affected by the disaster can also make it more difficult for the homeless to recover.
Communities can employ the homeless to help with the disaster cleanup process, providing them with a temporary income. Maximizing housing options and ensuring that these people have somewhere to go as disaster shelters close is also an important step in supporting them.
Plan for the Future
Climate change means that we’ll see more natural disasters in the future. We’ll probably see an increase in both the frequency and severity of disasters, which will increase the demands of our public health systems and programs. Earmarking federal funds for disaster relief can help the country prepare and set aside resources for these increased disasters.
Just as when we prep for major changes in the world, planning is key when it comes to helping the homeless through a disaster. This population faces unique challenges in getting help during a disaster, but by creating specific programs to help the homeless, communities can support their most vulnerable residents both during and after a disaster.