Robert G. Marbut Jr., executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, recently spoke with Manhattan Institute senior fellow and City Journal contributing editor Stephen Eide about the issue in the context of the Covid-19 crisis. Marbut was appointed to his current position in the Trump administration in December 2019. He previously served as a White House Fellow to President George H. W. Bush and was founding president and CEO of Haven for Hope, a homeless-service provider in San Antonio. Below is an edited version of the discussion.
Stephen Eide: What is the function of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness in normal times, and what is its function now?
Robert Marbut: We coordinate the federal government’s response to homelessness and seek to build strong partnerships across state and local governments and with the private, nonprofit, and faith-based sectors. That role has not changed in the last few months. We are working to make sure the federal government is coordinated in addressing Covid-19 as it relates to individuals and families experiencing homelessness. I’m currently chairing the Covid-19 Homelessness Workgroup, with the mission of saving lives and protecting the overall medical system.
Eide: What unique challenges does the Covid-19 pandemic present to homeless-service systems?
Marbut: Homeless shelters, service centers, campuses, and not-for-profit agencies are being stretched. Many are reducing services, and a handful have closed already. In addition, demand for services has surged, especially for food and shelter. Cash donations have dropped dramatically, and fundraising events have been cancelled. Food donations have also started to dry up from individual donors (who are being told to stay at home, and who fear losing their own food supply) and restaurants (which used to give “extras” to shelters and soup kitchens but are now shuttered).
Most agencies need volunteers to operate, but most volunteers have stopped volunteering because they’re commonly in the 50-to-70 age range and have been told to stay at home. Paid staff members who are sick or exposed to Covid-19 have had to self-quarantine or self-isolate. Another challenge: most organizations need PPE and sanitation supplies.
Eide: Do you worry more about sheltered or unsheltered homeless populations?
Marbut: We worry about both groups. Whether sheltered or unsheltered, people often have underlying health conditions and vulnerabilities that make Covid-19 more dangerous for them to contract. We need to be equally concerned about making sure there are safe spaces to practice social distancing, isolation, and quarantine.
Eide: What about the formerly homeless—e.g., those living in supportive housing?
Marbut: It’s important for those living in supportive housing to stay stably housed so that they can take the precautions they need to avoid contracting or spreading the coronavirus. Communities should continue to provide case management and other assistance to people in supportive housing.
Eide: How will the homeless benefit from the recently enacted Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act?
Marbut: Many resources are now available to homelessness-services systems that will make it easier for communities to respond flexibly to changing needs on the ground. FEMA is providing resources to cover emergency needs for food and shelter in those states that have approved disaster plans. And HUD has already distributed $1 billion in Emergency Solutions Grants—with another $2.96 billion on the way—that will help communities prevent, prepare for, and respond to the pandemic. In addition, the Small Business Administration has stepped up with loans and other relief for nonprofit and faith-based organizations that are providing shelter and other homelessness services to ensure that they’re able to keep their doors open. Other resources are available from the federal government, which we’re starting to track on our website. The Department of Education and USDA also run programs within the realm of the CARES Act.
Eide: Public health has always been a concern in homeless services. To what extent have localities drawn on experience in dealing with public-health challenges to respond to Covid-19?
Marbut: Covid-19 is a public-health challenge like we’ve never seen before. The lessons we will learn in dealing with this crisis will likely inform and change our response to homelessness.
Eide: So far, we’ve seen some regional variation with Covid-19, as some areas have been hit much harder than others. Are there any signs of regional variation with respect to how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected homeless populations?
Marbut: As with the general population, Covid-19 has hit some homelessness communities harder than others. We’re being very watchful to detect hotspots early so that these can be addressed in a timely fashion.
Eide: Which jurisdictions are doing the best work?
Marbut: Even though it is still early in this emergency, we know that California, Washington, and Atlanta have done good jobs to date.
Eide: Is there any good news?
Marbut: The direct emergency-services providers (that are almost all nonprofit) and most faith-based agencies have done an amazing job saving lives and reducing the spread of the coronavirus. The CDC and the emergency-services providers are our heroes.
Eide: Do you have any thoughts about how the Covid-19 pandemic might permanently change homeless services or the debate about homelessness?
Marbut: It’s too early to know.
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