I earned my Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Central Florida in 2013. For my dissertation, I studied how people experiencing homelessness mitigate their exposure to severe and inclement weather in the region. I published findings from this research in the Natural Hazards Review, the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, and the Journal of Emergency Management. This article was originally published in the Natural Hazards Observer.
Homelessness and Disaster Response in the United States
As you are reading this, more than 500,000 Americans are homeless. Many will sleep in homeless shelters; others will sleep in tents or other makeshift accommodations. The latter are exposed to a range of weather-related hazards. They represent some of the most vulnerable people in society and must be incorporated into emergency plans. Paradoxically though, homeless individuals can also be assets to their communities during disasters.
In 2010, I volunteered in the annual Point-In-Time Count (PIT) of people experiencing homelessness. That day, my group was tasked with surveying food banks in Osceola County, Florida, a county characterized by high poverty rates and widespread family homelessness. It was a gorgeous Florida winter morning—the sun shone warmly in a cloudless sky while a gusting breeze kept us cool. Bad weather was expected in the afternoon, but I wasn’t too worried about it. As a native Floridian, I am used to tumultuous afternoon storms.
When we arrived at the food pantry, the line stretched to the length of the building, with more people queuing up at the rear of the line. As I began my interviews, I found that many participants were concerned about the afternoon weather forecast, specifically a tornado warning that was issued. I asked a woman standing in line what she planned to do. She told me she intended to go to the library because it is a safe place, and she wouldn’t be asked to leave.
Before this conversation, I had never thought about what homeless individuals do when the weather is bad. Curious to find out more, I combed several academic databases and was surprised to find little research on this topic. The studies that were available at the time included “Research as Social Action in the Aftermath of Hurricane Andrew” (Cherry and Cherry 1996), a pioneering study on the impact of Hurricane Andrew on the homeless in South Florida, and Thomas Drabek’s “Disaster Evacuation Responses by Tourists and Other Types of Transients.” The fact that these two studies were the only works of consequence made me decide to dedicate my dissertation research to homelessness relating to disaster preparedness and response.
The conversations I had during the PIT count opened my eyes to the many hazards to which homeless individuals are exposed. I followed that realization with research on natural hazards vulnerability among men experiencing homelessness in Central Florida (Settembrino, 2013; Settembrino, 2015), and a Quick Response Program study on the effects of Hurricane Sandy on homeless shelter services and their guests in New Jersey (Settembrino, 2013; Settembrino, Forthcoming).
In both of these studies I employed qualitative research methods, including ethnographic observations at homeless shelters as well as interviews with shelter workers and homeless individuals. In my research on homeless men in Central Florida, I learned that social stigma, special medical needs, and chronic unemployment aggravate exposure to hazards among individuals experiencing homelessness (Settembrino, 2015). However, I also learned that despite social vulnerability to natural hazards, homeless men are able to mitigate some risks by fortifying their campsites and relying on social networks and public spaces to stay safe (Settembrino, 2013).
Similarly, my research on the effects of Hurricane Sandy on homeless shelters and their clients found that although the homeless are vulnerable to major disasters such as hurricanes, they might also have important skills that can be useful in disaster response (Settembrino, 2013; Settembrino forthcoming). Reflecting on my research, I see that it’s possible for someone to be both vulnerable and resilient.
In my research, the social vulnerability perspective has been a useful framework for understanding why those at the margins of our society, such as the homeless, bear a disproportionate burden in disasters.
Historically, disasters have been viewed as acts of God that we, as humans, can prepare for, but have little control over. With the introduction of the social vulnerability perspective in the early 1990s, an important shift occurred in disaster research. Social scientists—rather than deeming disasters as random and indiscriminate acts of God—considered social and economic systems that generate vulnerability and argued that disaster risk is distributed in ways that reflect existing social inequalities (Aptekar and Boore, 1990; Morrow and Enarson, 1998; Peacock et al., 1997).
As a result, disaster researchers and policy makers identified a number of groups as more vulnerable than others, including children, the elderly, women, racial minorities, the poor, immigrants, and individuals with physical or mental disabilities (Cutter et al., 2003). These groups differ from one another, yet when viewed through a social vulnerability perspective, they have things in common, such as limited access to vital economic and social resources, limited autonomy and power, and low levels of social capital (Morrow, 1999).
The social vulnerability perspective and the identification of vulnerable groups that followed have helped focus attention on the groups most at risk during and in the aftermath of disaster (Peek and Stough 2010). However, ensuing research on social vulnerability has tended to focus on one vulnerability factor (such as gender, race, age, or socioeconomic status) instead of examining the complex intersections between these factors (Morrow and Phillips 1999).
Clusters of vulnerability
We see a clustering of vulnerability factors in homeless populations—perhaps more than in any other vulnerable group—that can translate to an amplified risk in disaster.
A homeless individual’s geographic location, for example, significantly influences his or her exposure to hazards. We see that urban areas generally have more services and shelters available to the homeless compared to suburban and rural areas. As such, people experiencing homelessness outside of the central city may have to travel further to access services. This can lead to longer exposure and greater physical risk to weather related hazards. Some of my respondents recognized this problem. Carrie, a caseworker serving rural Osceola County, told me, “We try to get bus passes through Lynx bus. Unfortunately, Lynx won’t donate bus passes. A lot of these residents are like, ‘It takes me one single day just to get one thing done because I have to walk two hours to this place.’”
Besides geographical factors, social factors such as age, race, gender, sexual orientation, mental health, and physical health or ability will also affect the ways homelessness and disaster are experienced. In my research, I met several men who have chronic illnesses including diabetes, arthritis, and emphysema. These conditions are often made worse because of their housing status and create additional challenges during severe or inclement weather.
I also discovered that a disproportionate percentage of homeless youth (roughly 40 percent) identifies as lesbian, gay, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ)(NCEH 2014). We know that LGBTQ people experience discrimination and even violence in their daily lives. There is also evidence that LGBTQ disaster survivors have been discriminated against in emergency shelters and by federal aid policies (D’Ooge 2008). Therefore, I anticipate that the intersections of sexual orientation, gender identity, and housing status may complicate how LGBTQ people experiencing homelessness negotiate their risk to hazards and during disasters.
The homeless disproportionately struggle with mental illness and substance abuse as well. The National Coalition to End Homelessness reports that nearly one in five people experiencing homelessness suffer from serious mental illness. 38 percent of homeless individuals are dependent on alcohol, and as many as 26 percent abuse other drugs. Edington (2009) notes that disruptions associated with disasters can cause hardships on individuals with mental illness or who are drug or alcohol dependent. Those concerns were reflected in my research in Atlantic City, where I learned that some homeless avoid emergency shelters because they did not want to experience withdrawal symptoms.
Increasingly, disaster researchers identify the homeless population as a separate vulnerable group (Morrow 1999, Peek and Fothergill 2004, Paidakaki 2012), yet emergency management agencies are just beginning to incorporate the homeless into their planning. Emergency plans often fail to specify the particular needs of homeless individuals, instead categorizing their needs within the needs of all special populations. The unintended consequence of this failure to explicitly include homelessness in definitions has resulted in a denial of services (Edgington, 2009).
In order to be more effective, emergency managers should identify the homeless as a distinct vulnerable population, be aware of clustered vulnerability factors, and involve communities, service providers, and the homeless themselves at all levels of planning and response. Several government and non-government organizations are developing tools and guidelines to assist emergency managers and homeless service organizations to meet the needs of the homeless. Examples include the soon-to-be-launched Homeless Toolkit by the Veterans Emergency Management Evaluation Center (VEMEC) and the Disaster Planning for People Experiencing Homelessness Guide from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC). These are important tools that emergency managers can use to plan for the needs of people experiencing homelessness in their communities.
While I argue that the homeless are a vulnerable population that emergency managers should be prepared to serve, my research has also found that many homeless people have developed strategies to protect themselves and their property from severe and inclement weather. Moreover, homeless shelters and their guests can be assets to their communities during crises.
Resilience and resourcefulness
To be homeless means that one is fully exposed to the elements and, as such, homeless individuals are among the most vulnerable people in our society. I have learned through my research that weather events that someone with a house might consider a nuisance can be a major concern for those experiencing homelessness. For instance, extreme temperatures and rainy days can prevent homeless individuals from accessing services, food, and even finding adequate shelter. As one of my participants, Tony, explained to me, “When it’s raining out, you can’t move around as much, ya know what I mean? You might have to not eat that day.”
It is clear the homeless population should be considered as a specific group vulnerable to the impact of disasters, but belonging to a vulnerable group doesn’t mean individuals can’t be resilient. In fact, I found that people experiencing homelessness can be skilled risk managers—they are able to assess situations and make decisions quickly to protect themselves and their property. They use social networks to find temporary shelter; locate safe public spaces, such as libraries or shopping malls, when emergency shelter is not available; and take steps to fortify their campsites from wind and rain. The quotes below demonstrate some of the ways that my participants assess and mitigate risks associated with natural hazards:
“You don’t wanna be down a hill. Ya know what I mean? You wanna be higher up. You know? You don’t wanna be in a ravine or anything like that… I’ve been doin’ this for about three years now so I’m a little bit smart about it… You gotta just pick the right spots… I [also] take the tarp, and I drape it over the top of the tent and kinda put it on an angle so the rain goes in a certain direction…when it hits.” – Tony
“You can do what’s called ditching your tent. You just … take your camp shovel, which you have to have, or around here you can just dig with your hands and get most of the sand. But, I don’t know, you dig a small ditch along the side of your tent, and you pile up what you took from the inside. That’ll protect from a lot of incoming water.” – Frank
Even while they manage the daily hardships of lack of shelter, homeless individuals can be assets to their communities during disasters. In my study of the effects of Hurricane Sandy on the homeless in New Jersey, I looked at two homeless shelters—the Hoboken Shelter and the Atlantic City Rescue Mission. I learned that both the shelters and their guests played important roles in the disaster response by receiving, processing, and distributing donated items almost immediately after the storm passed.
Additionally, some of the guests in the Hoboken Shelter regularly volunteered—in non-disaster situations—in the shelter kitchen, serving more than 500 meals a day to the hungry. These guests transferred those skills to the response efforts in Hoboken, where they volunteered with the Red Cross to feed those displaced by the storm. Participants who were part of this group of volunteers spoke of their work with pride, noting that it was rewarding to help their neighbors in crisis. In Atlantic City, pre-disaster homeless worked for FEMA to process claims by storm victims in their community.
Although the shelters and their guests helped their communities respond to and recover from Sandy’s impact, they were not previously included in local emergency plans. Since the storm, however, representatives from both the Hoboken Shelter and the Atlantic City Rescue Mission have served on local long-term recovery boards.
Historically our emphasis in research and practice has been on how housed populations prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters. This approach is largely pragmatic. Major disasters can leave thousands of people homeless in an instant. In recent years however, a growing number of researchers (and service providers) have recognized the importance of understanding and preparing for the individual access and functional needs of homeless populations during disasters. Because much of their research is largely exploratory, we are often left with more questions than answers.
My research has pointed toward what seems like an unlikely conclusion—that the homeless are both vulnerable and resilient to hazards. They can be both in need and beneficial in recovery. My hunch is that this paradox is not new and can probably be found in all vulnerable populations. After all, the skills needed to navigate society as a member of a vulnerable population, apply to situations when “normal” society becomes vulnerable. Which is why they can be physically vulnerable, yet individually resilient.
I encourage practitioners to include the homeless in their planning processes. Emergency managers can reach out to local coalitions for the homeless and community-based organizations to begin to understand the context of homelessness in their communities. It is equally important that emergency managers work directly with the homeless to identify their specific access and functional needs—and also to understand how their skills might be integrated into response efforts. We may not be able to solve the social problem of homelessness. However, as a community of researchers and practitioners, we can certainly find ways to make life safer for the exposed members of our society and capitalize on their expertise.
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Settembrino, Marc. (Forthcoming 2016). “Sometimes You Can’t Even Sleep at Night: Social Vulnerability among Men Experiencing Homelessness in Central Florida” in International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters.
Settembrino, Marc. (2016). “Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the pre-disaster homeless and homeless shelter services in New Jersey.” In Press. Journal of Emergency Management.
QR239 The Effects of Hurricane Sandy on the Homeless in New Jersey. Marc Settembrino. 2013. Available at: http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/research/qr/submitted/settembrino_2013.pdf