COVID-19 Preparation for Homeless Populations

  • COVID-19
  • Reaching Home

COVID-19 Preparation for Homeless Populations

If your work involves supporting clients experiencing homelessness or housing instability, you may be wondering what steps to take in order to reduce the risk of getting or spreading the COVID-19 virus, for staff, volunteers, and clients.

Individuals experiencing homelessness may be at a greater risk of getting an infection and developing severe complications due to their health, social, and economic circumstances. In addition, minimizing close contact with others during the peak of an outbreak may not be feasible for those who work or reside in congregate shelter settings. 

Remember that communities receiving Reaching Home funding can use these funds to support their response to COVID-19. Eligible expenses include:

  • Basic needs services, including purchasing personal hygiene products such as soaps to reduce risk of transmission;
  • Cleaning, hygiene and sanitation supplies (such as alcohol-based sanitizers) to lower the risk of transmission (shelters are recommended to purchase alcohol-sanitizing wipes as opposed to liquids to prevent possible consumption);
  • Navigating access to clinical, health and treatment services for shelter users who are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, or to provide liaison services for treatment;
  • Accessing additional transition housing and temporary rental accommodations, such as motels, hotels or rooming houses, to increase distancing between people (1-2 meters are recommended by public health officials) or to provide isolation rooms in cases requiring self-quarantine; and,
  • Purchasing beds and physical barriers to place between beds in newly purposed facilities.

There are important steps that homelessness organizations and other frontline service providers can take to help in preventing vulnerable populations from getting or spreading the COVID-19 virus. 


Review municipal and/or provincial/territorial pandemic planning resources, particularly if there is one for vulnerable populations. Find these plans online through your local public health authority’s website. In addition, review your own organization’s business continuity plan.

If you are unable to locate existing plans, develop a plan that considers:

  • Designating a staff member who will serve as a pandemic lead;
  • Creating a communication plan for staff and clients;
  • Capacity for increasing outreach services; and,
  • Implementing infection protocols, such as:
    • Washing hands often with soap and hot water or use of alcohol based sanitizer.
    • Increasing access to hand hygiene and cough etiquette supplies (e.g., alcohol-based hand rub, soap, paper towels, tissues, waste containers).
    • Cleaning frequently used spaces, surfaces and objects (kitchens, common areas, dining areas, desks, shared sleeping spaces, doorknobs, and faucets).
    • Staying home when sick.
    • Avoiding the use of shared personal items.
    • Sharing information about what to do if staff or a client shows symptoms of becoming sick.
    • Sharing steps about how to care for and isolate people living in a crowded facility (including the use of separate washrooms, if available).

Also, ensure that your planning includes these three groups of people experiencing homelessness:

  • People experiencing unsheltered homelessness, including those living in encampments;
  • People residing in sheltered locations, including emergency shelter, transitional housing, and other temporary locations; and,
  • People living in permanent housing programs, including permanent supportive housing.


  • Establish relationships with public health partners in your community to ensure that people experiencing homelessness have access to safe and adequate shelter or housing and medical care if they become ill with COVID-19.
  • Create a plan with homeless-serving agencies in your community that coordinates efforts and resources. Consider:
  • Creating a master list of staff who could work across agencies in the event of staffing shortages;
  • Create a shared stockpile of resources; and,
  • Designate one agency that has the capacity to serve as a central infirmary for clients who become infected.

Stay informed and seek training

Homelessness serving organizations’ staff and volunteers will need ongoing and up-to-date information and training to protect people experiencing homelessness and themselves from potential exposures to COVID-19.

Make sure that you get high-quality and factual information about COVID-19 from reliable sources. Take the time to learn the facts:

  • Keep up-to-date about the current situation in your community.
  • Contact local, provincial, territorial public health officials to get relevant COVID-19 information, resources and guidance.
  • If you suspect a client may be suffering from symptoms related to COVID-19, please contact your local public health authority.
  • Contact the Public Health Agency of Canada for COVID-19 information by telephone at 1-833-784-4397 (interpretation services available in multiple languages) or by email at
  • Read more in the Public Health Agency of Canada’s factsheet on vulnerable populations and COVID-19.

Additional resources:

*Please note that the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development published these resources. They contain some information specific to the structure of homelessness programs and services in the US, which does not apply in the Canadian context.