A Winning Homelessness Response during COVID-19 in El Paso

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“The Cities that manage their COVID response correctly are the ones taking advantage of this moment as an opportunity – making their recovery inclusive and equitable – to address COVID now and prepare for the challenges of tomorrow. Those who don’t…”

It’s difficult to imagine sitting in a U.S. city in March, as the COVID-19 epidemic comes rushing towards your city, and having the composure to ask “How can we make our response to this incoming catastrophe inclusive, equitable, and resilient?” But that’s exactly what El Paso Chief Resilience Office Nicole Ferrini and the resilience team did in El Paso, Texas, with the full support of the city, by prioritizing addressing homelessness as a central component of their response. 

They immediately rallied to create surge capacity to house and support people who were homeless. By providing people who didn’t have a home with a place where they could comply with shelter-in-place orders, El Paso reduced their risk of exposure to the virus. Through a focused admissions process at the new shelter, the city effectively identified and isolated those who did contract it, and ensured that the infected didn’t become a dangerous, difficult-to-track source of infection, protecting the entire city. The results of this focus speak for themselves. 

The emergency homeless center has served just over 1,000 individuals in last six months, in a city of 685,000 people where the official homeless count in January of 2020 tallied just 852. The center boasts a positivity rate – the percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive – of just 1.5%, compared to over 5% for El Paso at large. And the center’s origination rate is zero, meaning no cases or outbreaks are traced back to the center. El Paso acted quickly and decisively to protect a marginalized community and avoid having this community become a significant source of infection for the city at large. In the end, they have achieved all this at a cost of about $82 per homeless client per day, which is a tremendous feat in light of the low number of positive cases among the population of people without homes.

Addressing Homelessness During COVID-19 in a City of “Stressers”

Ferrini led El Paso through its resilience strategy process in February of 2018, ultimately making the need to “Create healthy, affordable, high quality housing options for all El Pasoans, especially those that are most vulnerable” a core priority for the strategy. This process was a watershed moment for the city, “shifting to a resilience perspective in the city changed the way we think as an organization,” says Ferrini of the process, and it set the stage for their COVID-19 response. Resilience became a city government priority, as leadership and the resilience team developed a common understanding of the city’s challenges and priorities, supported by powerful data about the community that they collected as part of the strategy (Read El Paso’s Resilience Strategy. Find the data on El Paso’s Challenges starting on page 33). With agreement about where to allocate funding from the mayor and city council, Ferrini knew they could count on these leaders to support and prioritize homelessness and equity. 

El Paso has a strong incentive to confront homelessness and a need for emergency housing capacity. In addition to the city’s broader goals of equity and serving vulnerable populations necessitating a solution, El Paso is a border town that links the United States and Mexico and sits at the intersection of three states, so it receives a fair number of refugees. Whenever a dramatic weather event in the Gulf of Mexico pushes people from their cities and homes, such as a hurricane, some of them end up in El Paso. Recently, the city has experienced this kind of surge condition roughly once a year. 

Despite incentives, financial support, and attention for homelessness, CRO Ferrini says El Paso struggled to address homelessness head-on through the beginning of 2020. That all changed with COVID-19.  

COVID exposed all the vulnerabilities that already existed in cities, and “shined a light on everything we should have been focusing on.”  

Nicole Ferrini, Chief Resilience Officer, El Paso 

Because of her office’s place in the city, they were always going to play a central role in the city’s overall crisis response, and from the beginning, she and city leadership agreed that said response should prioritize homelessness. She began by forming the Vulnerable Population Support Task Force, bringing together 26 government agencies, nonprofits, and organizations and breaking down silos that had previously impeded their attempts to address homelessness. 

Seeing a surge in demand for emergency housing after the shelter-in-place order came down, the Task Force foresaw that the city’s homeless shelter capacity would be overwhelmed quickly, due to social distancing guidelines reducing most centers’ capacity by half, and an expectation that homelessness would rise as people lost their jobs during the shutdown.  

They took what would be the first of several bold, decisive steps, devoting 100% of the first tranche of Emergency Solutions Grant funding to creating the Delta Haven, a pair of facilities to receive, house, and support anyone who needed it. 

The Delta Center: Rapid Action in the Face of a Crisis 

Instead of devoting all of its emergency funding into emergency response, as many cities did, El Paso split its funding between response and recovery, that is, resilience building. 

The first step to a resilient response was setting, and ultimately achieving, the goal of taking in 100% of people without a home, no matter what. They called it a zero barrier, and it has meant finding a way to process people from all kinds of communities, including everyone from the formerly incarcerated to people who have not had a home for years to recently unhomed families with a pet in tow. The task force created a single point of access at the Delta Haven to make screening more effective, and created a system where anyone with symptoms was connected with treatment and given access to a quarantine hotel. The system, still in place, has a primary goal of keeping anyone without a home off the street. They also seek to transition people out of emergency housing, finding ways to help those who want to find a job and get on their feet. 

For example, when COVID-19 hit in March, Jenna and her four kids and a dog were newcomers to El Paso. They were struggling with homelessness after being kicked out by her brother, but by a stroke of luck, she called the homeless support number and learned of the Delta Welcome Center on the day it opened. 

“We were their very first clients that day. They walked us to the family section, showed us our bed, provided us with hygiene supplies, and explained to us that if we needed anything, they would find a way to get it. They did little things to make us feel even comfier. But to us, these things were huge and life-changing— That morning, I had been in a really dark place inside. But the staff in this shelter quite literally saved my life that day.” 

Now, Jenna has a full-time job for the first time in 11 years, their two-bedroom apartment is the first home she and her family have known in three years, and the children are all attending school, which they had not done in at least eight months. 

Creating stories like this in the face of a looming crisis is just one step in El Paso’s path to building long-term resilience. Keeping people off the streets and empowering them helped the city overall, and laid the groundwork for the city’s long-term goals around processing future surges and completely eliminating every-day homelessness.  

But doing that requires them to navigate unclear, hastily created guidance for spending federal emergency funds disbursed under the CARES act in the spring. Facing that uncertainty, Ferrini called her counterparts, the Chief Resilience Officers in Dallas and Houston, and colleagues in Austin, and they discussed how to spend the over $119 million allocated to El Paso before the December 2020 deadline, how to mitigate the risks of failing to allocate all of the funds, how to ensure the funding they provided for housing efforts was done correctly. 

Because these relationships had already been established, in part by the network, Ferrini and her team were able to get together with colleagues quickly to collaborate and figure out how to achieve their desired impact, without putting the entire city at financial risk. And it worked. Ferrini’s office disbursed over $26 million in just six months, over four times what they would usually process. 

Building Long-term Resilience and a More Equitable El Paso in the Face of the Country’s Pending Housing Crisis  

Once they stood up Delta Haven, the Task Force created a three-part plan focused on recovery and building resilience regarding homelessness. They built this plan using the resilience lens and other Resilient Cities Network tools to prioritize differently than many other cities have. First, instead of keeping Delta Haven open until the COVID-19 pandemic is over, they will close and transition away from the center by January 2021. Delta Haven was an innovative, flexible response to provide emergency surge capacity. But, as Ferrini elaborates, “Delta Haven is response, not recovery.” 

The second step is to create a crisis response plan for surge conditions similar to those encountered during COVID-19. El Paso is in in the early steps of collecting the right resources to create the response plan, which will build on the lessons learned in 2020, such as the need to find a better way to conduct inclusive consultations and communications in neighborhoods near potential emergency centers, and focus on enabling the city to address homelessness arising from the uncertainty of COVID-19, the refugees El Paso receives from regional climate events, and other unexpected disasters and disruptions. 

This is particularly relevant in the United States, because across the country, eviction moratoriums are expiring. When they do, many low-income families in rental properties won’t be able to pay the huge back-due rent payment. Absent comprehensive local solutions, this will put millions of families on the street. While El Paso is working with county, state, and federal governments to prevent this, their crisis response plan will also be ready to support the recently unhomed, just in case.  

The timeline is to complete the plan and move to implementation within the first six months of 2021. The final step is leveraging the ground gained by standing up Delta Haven, the pending crisis response plan, and all the CARES and Department of Housing and Urban Development funding to achieve zero homelessness on a daily basis. They know that to complete a gear shift from response to long-term recovery and resilience-building, they have to leverage the lessons learned during this episode before the COVID-born sense of urgency dissipates.  
 

Regional Resilience and the Future 

El Paso’s success in managing homelessness during COVID-19 offers two critical lessons. First, it demonstrates the power of the urban resilience approach they and the rest of the other cities in the Resilient Cities Network have adopted. They conducted a needs and perceptions assessment with a broad base of City stakeholders, and used it to develop a new understanding of the City’s needs, strengths, and weaknesses, and how they are all connected. 

As it is designed to do, the transformative experience of the resilience strategy process also equipped the city with flexible capacity to meet emergency needs, most notably in the form of relationships, a shared understanding of priorities, and a common language, all of which connected Ferrini and her team with the Mayor and the City Council, empowering them to respond. The city and county governments were already on-board before COVID-19 struck, so when the time came, they asked Ferrini’s team to deliver weekly briefings to the mayor and city council, which in turn helped public leaders communicate to the broader public effectively about the City’s COVID-19 response.  

Second, it showed how valuable a regional network of urban resilience experts is in a crisis. Ferrini and her colleagues in El Paso collaborated with peers across the state and the country to discuss a host of issues ranging from funding compliance to housing solutions, in the face of significant uncertainty. They brainstormed and solved problems quickly, giving Ferrini’s team the confidence it needed to decisively address the City’s needs and help people as soon as possible. 

In addition to executing their plan to deal with emergency surges in homelessness while building a housing system that facilitates zero daily homelessness, in the immediate future Paso and Ferrini’s resilience team are focused on supporting the city’s ongoing recovery. They already valued regional cooperation, and will continue building and leveraging regional relationships and support. Most notably, El Paso’s resilience team is collaborating to create a regional resilience hub for smaller Texas cities; after a pilot program, they hope to convene resilience workshops for these cities to assist them in building individual strategies that would feed into a regional approach to urban resilience.   

It’s their hope that they can lead cities to learn what El Paso has; an integrated, cross-field resilience analysis of a city’s needs, focusing on making recovery inclusive and building an equitable city,  strengthening internal capacity and connections, can make all the difference in the world when it comes to being able to serve a city’s most vulnerable and impacting their lives. 

685K

people live in the city.

852

people without homes as of January 2020.

1,000

individuals served in the last six months by the emergency homeless center, with a COVID-19 origination rate of zero and just 1.5% of tests coming back positive (compared to over 5% for El Paso at large).

A Winning Homelessness Response during COVID-19 in El Paso