How do you find and evacuate the homeless if you need to?
It’s a question that’s been bothering me–and many city leaders–for a while now. Homeless people are often the most vulnerable and the most disconnected from “normal” information channels like TV and radio which makes them a population more likely to be hardest hit by a disaster.
I did some research and talked to some people and here’s what I found:
- The homeless are not as disconnected as I originally thought.
- Solutions designed to target other, related, homelessness problems can be adapted for emergency use (a pretty standard procedure for cities and states faced with limited resources)
- The most vulnerable of society (homeless and otherwise) will–no matter what–be the hardest hit during a disaster. But, the more prepared individual citizens and businesses are to take care of themselves, the more resilient the community, the more help is available to the most vulnerable of society when it’s needed most.
According to the Atlantic, 75% of homeless youths use social media compared to 90% of their age-matched compatriots. While it is yet one tiny study, it led one researcher to posit that the Digital Divide may not be as large as we thought. Especially since the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has been working to narrow that divide since 1985 via it’s “Lifeline” program which subsidizes landlines and cell phones to low income consumers. (By the way, both Forbes and Snopes both debunked the myth that these phones are free or paid for by taxes.)
Not only do some homeless have more access to cell phones and the internet (giving them a channel by which to receive evacuation notices) than I thought, but they are more socially connected than I imagined. This interview with Vacaville, CA Police Chief John Carl from the Armstrong and Getty Show shows how familiar the Police and other service providers get with homeless individuals. (I highly recommend a listen. It’s about 20 min long, but really interesting.) And some cities are working to make those social connections even stronger.
Connections build resiliency
Carli describes how his town created a “Homelessness Roundtable” to coordinate with private and public stakeholders/service providers. He also formed the “Community Response Unit”–a police unit designed to–among other things–get to know homeless individuals. CBS Sacramento has an interesting report on their successes.
Likewise, Seattle has formed “Navigation Teams,” a combination of police personnel and social workers who spend all day everyday on the city streets, getting to know the individuals in the camps and offering them housing or other services. They report that after the institution of these teams, that the acceptance rate of housing offers went from 5% to 30%.
Furthermore, this news report alludes to one of the other benefits of these teams which is relevant to my question. When an infant disappeared into the vast network of homeless camps, the Navigation Team were asked to help find her. Because of the knowledge and trust they had earned with their daily engagement, they were able to leverage the homeless network to find the child. This is the true power of these Community Response Units and Navigation Teams: they can be tapped to deliver disaster warnings to those that might otherwise miss it.
In fact, it has already happened on a small scale. I spoke to the Seattle Office of Emergency Management spokesperson who mentioned to me that shortly after the Navigation Teams had begun working, a tanker overturned on I-5. The police used the brand new Navigation Team maps of homeless encampments to evacuate the homeless in the area. (He didn’t tell me a specific date, but I think this is the news report.) Navigation Teams and Community Response Units are designed to help the problems surrounding homelessness, but they may be a crucial link when it comes to delivering disaster warnings. I’d love to see Navigation Teams in every city.
I can’t help but notice a lesson buried here: when we work to make our communities safer and healthier, we make them more resilient as well. The homeless may be especially vulnerable, but–exactly like the rest of us–when they have more connections, they are more resilient.
- An interview with the Vackaville Community Response Unit in bamboo grove. An especially interesting discussion about their work and why they do what they do. Plus an inside look into a well-established encampment.
- Seattle Navigation Team news: City-sanctioned camps as a stop-gap till more housing can be developed.