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Addressing Barriers to Emergency Management Planning for Populations Affected by Poverty

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to respond to a RFP with the intent to implement a homeless outreach program in my community. If you have ever been involved with grant writing you know that most RFPs begin with a prompt for a brief organizational introduction and discussion on the organization’s mission. However, this particular RFP did not. It actually began with the question on how the organization was going to address emergency response planning for individuals experiencing literal homelessness in the communities where were intending on serving (see HUD’s definition of literally homeless here).


I found this rather odd… that the funder (state) would place such an emphasis on emergency response planning. Of course, like any other RFP, I wanted to make a great impression and do my homework. First order of business – reach out to each of the county Emergency Management Agencies (EMA) in our areas of service. This included six different counties… the shocking discovery – not one single EMA had an emergency response plan specifically for those experiencing homelessness. Even more shocking – two of the six counties responded with, “We don’t have homeless people in our county.”


All of these agencies were ready and willing to work with my organization on developing policies and procedures around servicing this population. This was great experience for me and an opportunity to do some research and develop some strong partnerships!


At the time, I didn’t think it was such a big deal to have such a plan in place. Did I do the research, speak with community leaders, and develop the plan? Yes. Did I do it because I knew we were going to use it often when delivering the program services? Absolutely not. It was a requirement for the RFP, and in my mind that was it.


Why am I telling this long winded story? Well, fast forward to today… our new normal being quarantine island and literally all agencies scrambling to implement, you guessed it EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT PLANS. I wanted to take this opportunity to review that research I did and see if there were any action items that you, as your local community development professional, social service agency, or caring citizen, could implement to improve our current community situations.


Here is what I found:


Conduct a risk assessment for individuals experiencing poverty


In our current state of the COVID-19 crisis, this step may seem like a lost cause. But let me assure you that it is not!


We know the populations we work with like the back of our hands. We have heard their stories, we understand their everyday struggles, and we know their backgrounds. This is a starting place, not ideal, but definitely still a good start.


The risk assessment can be used to identify all possible barriers that arise in a state of emergency experienced by individuals and families affected by poverty. Think of the current COVID-19 crisis – we have already seen a gap in food security needs, transportation needs, employment (of course), housing (financial) needs… the list goes on. For the sake of this scenario, let’s focus on food security needs as it relates to the current state of emergency.


Need: Individuals and families need food.


Barriers: job layoffs/no money for food, no transportation to get food, no childcare so parents can go get food, mental health diagnoses/anxiety around going to stores because of risk of infection


Solution: Partner with food pantries to facilitate food deliveries


This is a very simple example to address this problem. But as you can imagine, conducting these risk assessments can get daunting. There may be multiple, integrated solutions to solving the identified problem. Those experiencing poverty have barriers that we can’t account for, as each situation is unique. However, a risk assessment is a great starting place for an emergency management plan.


Mental health should be a large focus in emergency management planning


For those of you working with individuals in extreme poverty, it is important to focus on developing a mental health plan to reference in a state of crisis (cough, cough… right now). Here is a list of things to develop with your clients and/or community stakeholders:


•List of medications from physician(s) •Emergency Information Form •Two week supply of medications and supplies •Medical equipment backup plan •Best place to be in the event of a disaster •Make EMAs aware of mental health care needs of population •Disaster planning for public place •List of mental health services available at local community agencies and hospitals


(List adapted from Café TA Center, Disaster Preparedness for Persons with Mental Health Needs)


When developing an emergency management plan, it is important to consider the mental health needs of all citizens. I would argue that these needs may be heightened for individuals experiencing extreme poverty. Why? Unfortunately we live in a world where those experiencing poverty also experience health disparities, including mental health. Don’t just take my word for it. SAMHSA says it well here.


Work with your local Emergency Management Agency


In my research and conversations with the EMA’s of the six counties I spoke to about the homeless outreach program, local EMA’s are ready and willing to help develop specific plans for your population of focus. An emergency management or disaster preparedness plan is usually written for the “general population” and does not take in account any of the special circumstances experienced by those affected by poverty and other factors. You are the expert in your field, use this as a time to educate the community to ensure the community works together effectively when the emergency plan needs to be implemented!


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