Respite Care Programs for Homeless People Are Crucial During COVID-19

sick person's hand on nurse button

For ailing homeless people, respite programs have been a lifeline during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also known as recuperative care, respite programs provide temporary and in-between care for sick homeless patients. These are the homeless people that are too ill to live on the streets or in a shelter, but aren’t sick enough to be taken to hospital.

Respite facilities provide rest and recuperation. But they also give workers an opportunity to understand what support homeless patients might qualify for.

Staff can then refer these homeless people to other services, allowing them time and space to think about their next step in life. Considering the circumstances, it’s fair to say downtime like this is crucial for both the patient’s physical and mental wellbeing.

According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC), recuperative care programs have nearly doubled in number since 2012. There are at least 110 today in the United States, with a dozen more amid development.

Homeless People That Rely on Respite Programs

The United States now has the largest number of coronavirus cases, with well over one million confirmed. Without such programs, ill homeless people would be stuck on the streets with a heightened risk of their condition worsening if they contracted COVID-19. Needless to say, these little-known respite facilities have filled a key role around the country.

The good news is that these programs are welcoming increased recognition from policymakers and other parts of the health sector, with ideas to increase the number of services.

The pandemic could potentially increase the need for more respite programs as awareness grows of the role they’re filling.

Respite programs serve as a lifesaver for many homeless people who would otherwise find themselves in a devastating situation. The sad reality is without respite care, many would no longer be here.

Respite care allows ill homeless people to take it easy and let their bodies heal. Some patients stay in care for up to three months or longer. Once the patient has recuperated, social workers aim to help find them housing of their own.

The Small Organizations That Save Lives

In many cases, these respite services are small organizations that provide medical services to homeless people, as well as a safe place to rest.

One of these organizations includes Christ House in Washington D.C. Such organizations not only offer medical care and a warm bed to sleep in, but can also help homeless people plan for a positive future.

The team at Christ House can help homeless people quit drinking, find a job, and live in a permanent home. The staff works tirelessly to help people get back up on their feet.

Founded in 1985, Christ House was one of the first US organizations to offer respite care for people experiencing homelessness.

Nowadays, this system is embraced in cities across the nation, filling a gap between what hospitals and shelters can offer.

After all, most people that are discharged from the hospital are under strict instructions to take it easy at home. But homeless people don’t have a safe and clean place to recuperate and this is where the gap arises. As we know, today more than ever it’s important to keep vulnerable homeless people off the city streets to prevent them from contracting coronavirus and risking death.

The Limitations of Respite Programs

Even the biggest respite facilities have had their systems shaken from the coronavirus pandemic, with most of the focus being on COVID-related stresses.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testing at 19 different homeless shelters in four cities across the US discovered an average coronavirus infection rate of 25%. In San Francisco, the figures are as high as two-thirds.

However, there are limits on what respite services can do in these circumstances. Respite care isn’t federally funded. Most organizations are small, with less than 20 beds available. Amid the crisis, we’re asking: why aren’t there more of these programs?

Respite care services currently available must learn how to juggle the needs of current vulnerable patients alongside the potential inflow of possible or confirmed coronavirus cases.

How can respite programs cope with these changes? Which cases must be prioritized?

Around the country, there have been different approaches. Some programs, such as in Seattle and Boston, welcome patients who are COVID-19 positive or even focus solely on such individuals.

Other organizations take in sick non-positive homeless people to help free space in hospitals or shelters who need extra care.

While coronavirus has taken its time infecting homeless communities, it is a ticking time bomb. It will devastate this vulnerable group of people, many of whom already have underlying physical and mental health conditions.

One suggestion is to expand medical respite care capacity by using the many empty motels and hotels around the US. The National Alliance to End Homeless urges cities to secure rooms and additional space for medical respite beds. These rooms can then be used to care for homeless people who are ill but aren’t sick enough to be hospitalized.

For such a scheme to work, hospitals, MCOs, and FQHCs must coordinate services and financing.

Awaiting the Surge

Some respite care programs are not discharging homeless people at all, such as the Santa Clara Medical Respite Program in Northern California.

The team at the organization predicted a surge in patients and discussed how to expand the program without waving goodbye to anyone.

The respite program has moved to a new building with 65 beds, which is more than three times its previous capacity. The scheme is in the process of tripling its staff to meet the demands.

During these times of quarantine and self-isolation, some patients are tested daily. Meals are delivered by the door for individuals to social distance, and any attention required is met immediately.

As mentioned, the only issue with such services is size. Respite care programs are often full anyway, and the spread of coronavirus means they’ll soon become overwhelmed.

What Next?

For homeless people that are COVID-19 positive, the question still remains: what’s the best approach to keeping them safe from the streets, especially on such a large scale?

Local health departments have sought help from unused motels. However, while many of the motels run with great success, this varies with each establishment. The staff’s expertise in many organizations often includes people who have never worked with people suffering from extreme trauma. The result is staff cannot always care for individuals as they should.

Respite organizations are efficient at diagnosing illness while dealing with mental health issues such as addiction and depression. They’re also hands-on with taking care of potentially violent or manic episodes, as well as urgent medical issues.

Sadly, in some cases, homeless people have been thrown out for addiction issues. Or, for being unable to deal with the isolation that comes with the lockdown. For those struggling with mental health issues, being alone with just four walls for some company can be extremely difficult.

Yet despite the limitations of respite programs in motel and hotel rooms, it’s clear the realm of recuperation care requires more assistance – and fast.

In the long term, perhaps there’s a way of transforming the coronavirus crisis into a positive situation for homeless people in the US by preventing people from having to return to the streets permanently.

The United Kingdom just announced a task force to move rough sleepers into long-term and safe housing once lockdown is lifted. Could the United States follow these steps?

Ellie Swain

Ellie Swain


Ellie is a freelance writer who grew up in London. She is passionate about ending homelessness and writes for various publications, non-profits, and marketing agencies to produce content. In her spare time, Ellie loves travelling to new places, exploring her city of London, and listening to live music.

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