Integrated Family Community Services 3370 South Irving Street, Englewood, CO 80110-1816 Ph: 303-789-0501

Helping the Homeless Through Natural Disasters

Living through crisis situations is challenging. However, being homeless and weathering the high winds of a hurricane or the extreme cold temperatures of a blizzard can be life-threatening or even fatal. The homeless population may not have a home to secure or leave during dangerous times; however, they still need to prepare for natural disasters and frequently require the help of volunteers and organizations to assist before, during, and after the event.

Homeless individuals have unique needs during high-stress times that come with natural disasters. It’s estimated that the number of homeless in New Orleans rose by more than two-and-a-half times during the period before Hurricane Katrina and seven years after in 2012. This means that around 2,200 homeless individuals required various levels of assistance during one of the most devastating natural disasters to ever hit America. Of course, after the critical events, there are often even more people who need assistance.

Knowing how to assist them requires specialized knowledge, compassion, and empathy. Here are a few critical ways you can help the homeless through natural disasters and beyond.

Help Find Safe Shelter

Some natural disasters hit with no warnings, making it difficult to plan ahead. However, with advancements in technology, most of the time, there are at least a few hours or even a day or two to prepare before hurricanes, blizzards, or tornadoes hit. It’s critical to work with agencies such as the American Red Cross or other disaster relief organizations who are developing plans and setting up shelters during natural disasters. As an advocate for the homeless, you can bring awareness to your community and offer to lead the charge in locating homeless people and transporting them to shelter.

When Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas and East Coast earlier this month, the American Red Cross provided shelter to more than 12,000 people in 171 Red Cross and community evacuation shelters in three states. There were 142 shelters in Florida alone, serving more than 11,00 people. Red Cross and other disaster relief organizations provide blankets, water, extra clothing, prescription medications, and countless volunteers during critical natural disasters.

As a volunteer, you will probably need to work with local law enforcement, emergency medical services, and hospitals to create a comprehensive plan to locate people in need of shelter. Once the disaster has subsided, the number of homeless or displaced people may increase, making it imperative for advanced planning procedures to begin as soon as possible. Along with shelter, water, food, and clothing may be needed. Be sure to collaborate with other agencies who can help provide basic human needs after the crisis.

Show Empathy for Mental Health Needs

When working with the homeless population during a natural disaster, it’s crucial to demonstrate sensitivity to mental health issues. Many people living in unstable situations have experienced past trauma or live with mental illness. It’s estimated that more than 90% of homeless mothers have suffered severe physical or sexual abuse. Over 80% of homeless children in the U.S. have witnessed violence before their twelfth birthday. Living through traumatic events like these can make getting through natural disasters more challenging. Many homeless are skeptical of the police, so first responders and volunteers are often asked to be on the frontlines. To accurately provide care, you must be trained in empathy, compassion, and sensitivity.

Volunteers must also know and be able to identify the stages of coping with trauma. Being able to recognize if the individual is in the shock, denial, anger, grief, or acceptance stage of coping will allow you to know the best way to help. It’s important to note that not everyone goes through all of the stages. In fact, most people don’t even go through them in the same order. This knowledge can help you to be acutely aware of the stages and common symptoms or reactions in each.

Stressful situations, chaotic surroundings, or a lack of privacy can trigger severe and traumatic symptoms for individuals living with mental illness. These triggers can make acute or long term healthcare needs arise amidst the natural disaster. While recognizing the need for medical care is typically easy, convincing the homeless to receive care can be challenging. Individuals with mental illness may be skeptical of the healthcare system. They might also express a lack of funds or other barriers to receiving needed healthcare services. Be sure that processes are in place to match care needs to the right care facility. You can also ensure that modern advancements in medicine such as telehealth are maximized to get people the care they need when they need it.

Lend a Hand to Rebuild

Surviving a disaster is only part of the process. Once the storm or other natural event has passed, rebuilding communities to improve the lives of the homeless must begin. Volunteers are crucial to the rebuilding phase. You may be asked to contact non-profits for seasonal donations you can put to use by giving them to the homeless. This might include things like blankets, coats, and suitable shoes for the current temperatures.

After a disaster, it’s common for government agencies and other non-profits to need volunteers to help with cleaning up the devastation. However, during this time, the homeless are often forgotten as they return to the streets. It’s vital to have advocates reminding government agencies and nonprofits of the need for housing developments and other resources for those who didn’t have a home before the event. Once a comprehensive plan is in place, you can help to build a better life for the homeless than what they had before the storm or blizzard.

Being Prepared to Offer Help

Volunteering to help the homeless during a natural disaster is a noble thing to do, but why let the spirit of service stop there? You can continue to advocate for those who don’t have a voice or know how to speak up for themselves. Use these tips to get yourself plugged-in to volunteer opportunities that can help the homeless during natural disasters and beyond.

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Integrated Family Community Services is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

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