By Sonni Efron

America’s homeless population had grown older, sicker and larger even before COVID-19 hit.

The United States will need between 280,000 and 400,000 new beds – at a cost of up to $11.5 billion in 2020 – to shelter everyone with proper social distancing, said Dennis Culhane (bio, Twitter), a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. So far, Congress has allocated one-third to half of the necessary funding, Culhane said.

To help reduce the feared mortality rate, Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, CEO of LA Family Housing, is opening two more emergency shelters in Los Angeles County, where 59,000 people are homeless and an estimated 19,000 more beds are needed.

Vianna Davila, a reporter with ProPublica, gave tips for how to cover the emerging crisis. She suggested that journalists not label people as “homeless” but rather call them “people experiencing homelessness,” since their predicament is typically short term. And even though reporters need to keep their distance, she urged them to find ways to get those voices into stories.

It was pouring rain in Los Angeles as Klasky-Gamer (bio, Twitter) explained to journalists in an online National Press Foundation briefing how vital it is to bring those experiencing homelessness – some of whom have lived outside in encampments for years – into shelters where they can be tested, treated and protected against COVID-19.

That requires three different types of shelter models: new “decompression sites,” such as 15,000 motel rooms, that can be used to decrease the density of existing shelters and encampments; medical sheltering, for people who need to be quarantined; and city emergency shelters, where at-risk people can be housed, including in places such as recreation centers.

Those with COVID-19 symptoms and nowhere else to go must have housing that is separate from those without symptoms, and families where parents who need to continue to work must be sheltered alongside their children, she said.

That effort is complicated because volunteers – and journalists – can no longer come to shelters, Klasky-Gamer said.  Contrary to fears that homeless populations are spreading the new coronavirus, she said it’s actually the other way around: at-risk people in shelters are more likely to be infected by volunteers.

Because of that, volunteers are making curbside drop-offs of supplies, while other workers head out to encampments to try to bring vulnerable people indoors.

Culhane showed journalists how to use a new digital to estimate how many beds will be needed, by community, under varying assumptions about size of the unsheltered population, the infection rate, the percent of homeless people who are at high risk of medical complications, and other factors.

The tool, called the Homeless Planning & Response Dashboard, was developed by Culhane and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, Boston University and UCLA. It is based on a March 2020 paper that also projected hospitalization, intensive care units and mortality among homeless populations.