Homeless individuals and families are especially vulnerable during disasters and emergencies

Learn how to help the homeless in your community prepare for natural disasters and extreme weather conditions.

The devastation caused by natural disasters such as hurricanes Katrina and Sandy is well-documented. Of special concern during these disaster incidents, as well as during their often lengthy recovery periods, are high-risk groups such as the elderly, the disabled and the poor. One very vulnerable group that is often overlooked during and following a natural disaster are the homeless.

According to the National Policy and Advocacy Council on Homelessness (NPACH), about one percent of people living in the United States, around 3.5 million individuals, are considered homeless. The NPACH defines being homeless as “having no regular home and having to sleep on the streets, in shelters or abandoned buildings”.

The causes of homelessness certainly vary but the NPACH cites untreated mental illness, substance abuse, low paid jobs, prisoner release, unemployment, domestic violence and poverty as contributing factors.

Families as well as individuals can be homeless. The National Center on Family Homelessness notes that about one-third of the homeless population in the U.S. involves families with 1.6 million children homeless at some point during the year. This equates to 200,000 children each day having no place they can call home. The Center offers a fact sheet that provides additional information and statistics about each of the most common causes of homelessness in the U.S. The fact sheet also describes typical experiences encountered by homeless mothers, children and families that further exacerbate their already precarious situations. Sadly, the document cites several research studies that indicate over 92 percent of homeless women have been victims of severe physical and/or sexual abuse during their life. Even more disturbing, these studies find that by the age of 12, 83 percent of homeless children have witnessed at least one serious violent event.

Because of their history of past trauma, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Public Health Emergency (PHE) division notes that homeless individuals and families are more likely to have more adverse reactions, both physical and psychological, to a current disaster situation than the general public. The PHE website offers suggestions for first responders and volunteers assisting the homeless during a disaster that considers their unique needs. In addition to arranging for food, shelter and transportation, they stress the importance of keeping families together, making sure the homeless are physically safe, and connecting them to services that can address their emotional needs.

When communities are planning for future disasters, it is highly recommended to include people who have expertise in serving the homeless. The National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC) has prepared several flyers that can help the homeless prepare for a variety of natural disasters including severe cold, extreme heat, hurricanes, tornadoes, flood, wildfires, landslides and earthquakes. The NHCHC involved former and currently homeless people when developing these resource materials. In addition to distributing these one- or two-page tip sheets to homeless individuals to help them better prepare themselves for a future natural disaster, they suggest conducting training for homeless persons which focuses on how to get to a safe location when faced with one of these severe weather events. Their website offers a wealth of resources to address the special needs of the homeless population when doing disaster planning.

Michigan State University Extension is another source of information about disaster recovery, violence prevention and maintaining healthy relationships that may be helpful in working with the homeless. You may also find disaster-related resources at eXtension.org, an online network of Extension professionals from across the country.

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