Homeless in Colorado 2013 © Jeffrey Beal

On the days of September 11 through September 15, 2013, multiple counties along the Colorado Front Range experienced unprecedented rainfall that resulted in substantial flooding and pockets of devastation outside of designated flood plain zones. Those floods constituted the largest disaster in Colorado’s history, taking the lives of ten people and leaving thousands displaced. The floods washed away streets, soaked basements in muddy, sandy, and even toxic waters, and dramatically changed landscapes. The physical destruction was glaring; many people lost their homes and cars, and several Colorado trails and parks were substantially damaged.

Perhaps not as widely mentioned as the floods’ economic and physical destruction were the effects of the disaster on one of the state’s most vulnerable populations. Many pre-disaster homeless persons in Colorado lost their campsites, clothes, tents, identification cards, medicine, and a number of other belongings critical to their day-to-day lives. While their losses were not as economically significant as those of their housed counterparts, they still suffered a devastating loss of materials and psychological wellbeing. As a result, homeless service organizations expanded their roles to address homeless individuals’ heightened levels of need.

As a sociologist interested in the social causes and effects of disasters, my research focuses on the flood experiences of homeless individuals—and the organizations that serve them—following the 2013 floods (Vickery 2015). This article takes a more narrow focus in discussing the challenges faced by homeless-service organizations in Boulder, Colorado, in preparing for and responding to the floods. In doing so, I call attention to the larger social conditions that strain nonprofit and community-based organizations, making them unable to adequately prepare for, respond to, and recover from disaster.

(L) Popular recreational area along Boulder Creek, September 14, 2015, (M) Comparison picture of Boulder Creek near the city's public library taken on Setpember 14, 2013, and (R) nearly a year after, on August 13, 2014 © Jamie Vickery

Boulder, Colorado

Boulder County was one of the most heavily affected counties in Colorado during the floods, with four deaths, over 200 homes destroyed, and an expected $217 million in flood recovery costs over the ensuing five years (Boulder County 2015). The city of Boulder, and Boulder County more broadly, also comprise a significant homeless population; roughly 20 homeless-service organizations, initiatives, and shelters in the area work with more than 2,500 clients a year.

Through several interviews with staff, public officials in Boulder, and homeless individuals, I gained critical insights into how homeless persons and local homeless-service organizations experienced disaster. Most importantly, I am able to highlight the difficulties experienced by a subset of the population that often has no voice and is largely overlooked in both scholarship and emergency-management practice.

The floods in Boulder illustrate the difficulties posed during disaster for unsheltered homeless individuals and the organizations that serve them. However, these local experiences cannot be understood without acknowledging the social and environmental conditions that contribute to increasingly utilized and under-resourced homeless- service providers. Client base vulnerability, climate change, and a growing reliance on social-service organizations to meet basic human needs should be taken into account when trying to understand how organizations are exposed to disaster, and how they can effectively prepare for disaster.

Vulnerability of the homeless

Vulnerability is a state or characteristic that makes an individual or group more likely to experience negative effects from exposure to adverse conditions and influences one’s ability to anticipate, manage, and recover from disasters (Wisner et al. 2004). Extremely poor people are especially vulnerable due to a lack of material and social resources necessary to effectively prepare for, respond to, and recover from disaster (Fothergill and Peek 2004). Homeless individuals often lack income, resource networks, access to transportation, and political influence (Elvrum and Wong 2012). Mental illness, physical disability, alcoholism and drug abuse are also prevalent among the homeless (Walters et al. 2014). While not overlooking the resilience of homeless individuals, these factors intensify the challenges posed by natural disasters and may make it increasingly difficult for these individuals to successfully manage the effects of disaster.

The stigma of homelessness further intensifies homeless individuals’ vulnerability. Sociologist Kai Erikson argues that the homeless are often viewed and treated as something “less than human” or as a public nuisance (Erikson 1995). As a result, homeless people may be less likely to seek shelter or aid during disasters. During the 2013 Colorado Floods, several homeless individuals were initially turned away from a Red Cross shelter because they lacked a home address—despite being in dangerous conditions and having lost shelter and belongings (Meltzer 2013). A staff member at a local homeless service organization reflected on the incident: “They told us they could come over [to the public disaster shelter]. We gave them bus passes to go over there and they wouldn’t take them. They treated the homeless really, really bad… Just because they’re homeless doesn’t mean they don’t count.”

Homeless in Colorado 2013 © Jeffrey Beal

During the floods, staff from homeless-service organizations in Boulder County discussed being much more than service providers; they are also advocates for their clients. This role was particularly evident when the aforementioned public disaster shelter initially turned away homeless individuals. Homeless-service providers had to step in on behalf of the homeless community to guarantee their access to the resources offered to other “housed” survivors. Many of my interviewees expressed their frustration over the event and called for broader public attention to the view that disenfranchised groups are more than solely a nonprofit concern. As one participant explains, “it shouldn’t just be nonprofits worrying about the poor and the physically frail … the vulnerable.” The wooded areas along the creek shown above (pic 3) are known camping locations for the homeless community. Here, they dry out their clothes, wash supplies, and rest. The floods damaged many areas along Boulder Creek, and some individuals are still displaced from their former camping grounds to this day, partly because landscape changes and city ordinances keep them out of these areas. Lacking access to camping and recreational areas along the creek and close to downtown Boulder, many individuals have been pushed further outside of their community and into more risky environments in the mountains. In addition to hindering access to familiar campsites, the floods also continue to have a negative effect on the already limited affordable housing market in the Boulder area, which further limits homeless individuals from finding and acquiring stable housing (Wallace 2013).

Fortunately, homeless-service organizations in Boulder did not experience a dramatic long-term increase in clientele following the floods. However, their roles as basic-needs service providers were strained during the disaster, as they were called upon to assist with recovery-related services for their clients, such as distributing vouchers for clothes and food, replacing lost belongings, and acting as a mediator between some clients and FEMA. Homeless individuals who were typically self-sufficient before the floods, such as those who opted to camp instead of seeking emergency shelter, needed assistance from homeless service organization after the disaster. One homeless shelter in Boulder had to open its emergency sheltering services earlier than anticipated as a result of the floods, despite the fact that they initially did not have the money or other resources to provide adequate staffing and services to their clients.

Furthermore, the ability of homeless-service organizations to prepare for disaster was severely hampered due in large part to a lack of resources—time, money, and staffing.

A frayed “safety net”

U.S. nonprofit and community-based organizations act as safety nets for vulnerable populations in many ways, including food and rental assistance, career training, and health services (Ritchie et al. 2010). Yet, because of growing rates of exteme poverty, income inequality, lack of access to jobs that offer a living wage, and cutbacks in federal and state funded programs, these organizations have struggled to keep up with increasing demand (Belsie 2015; Shaefer and Edin 2014; Tierney 2013; Williams 2010). As a result, safety-net organizations face challenges in effectively preparing for, responding to, and recovering from a disaster event. This, in turn, may increase the vulnerability of low-income and homeless individuals who depend on them. For example, in meeting with homeless service providers in Boulder following the 2013 floods, many providers stated that disaster planning was low on their organization’s list of concerns. “Everyday is a disaster,” some said. With limited resources, their efforts center on addressing basic day-to-day needs, such as case management, food distribution, and emergency shelter.

Climate change: making matters worse

The problem of disaster under preparedness among the homeless and homeless-service providers will only become more critical in the future, as climate change will cause more frequent disasters and magnify hazards. Climate change is an evolving “threat multiplier” that will result in many environmental and socio-demographic changes (Furr 2011). For example, as sea levels rise, coastal communities are increasingly threatened by changing weather patterns that may intensify droughts, wildfires, rainfall, heat and severe storms. These phenomena will increase the risks faced by unsheltered homeless individuals who may not be able to escape the harmful effects of rising heat levels and poor air quality (Ramin and Svoboda 2009).

A better understanding of the disaster vulnerability of homeless populations, and the organizations that serve them, is essential for effective disaster planning. Even so, emergency management plans often neglect the unique vulnerabilities of the homeless. As both governments and organizations begin to plan for future extreme events, which are expected to increase with climate change, consideration of homeless individuals will yield more inclusive and comprehensive protection for this uniquely vulnerable population.

Preparedness recommendations

I gained many valuable insights and recommendations from homeless service organizations and homeless individuals who experienced the 2013 floods. These recommendations may be useful for other community-based and nonprofit organizations providing critical social services, and they are meant to complement preexisting organizational preparedness recommendations offered at local, state, and federal levels.

Nonprofit and community-based organizations must open lines of communication with one another about how they will mobilize and coordinate in a disaster event, especially if they provide overlaps in services and/or serve similar client bases. The preexisting connections between homeless-service organizations were helpful during and after the floods in identifying clients’ unmet needs and eventually finding sources of shelter for the homeless community. Any efforts to streamline response and recovery services will benefit recipients of aid and the organizations themselves as they find ways to capitalize on resources available in their social service network.

Homeless-service providers should note areas where homeless people commonly congregate in their local communities. Fliers, phone calls, and verbal announcements about where to go for resources during and following a disaster at these locations are critical in order to get the word out to homeless individuals who may not have access to other means of communication. The organizations must also create or build upon meaningful connections with key members of the homeless community in order to identify gatekeepers who will likely have influence and the ability to communicate effectively to various members of the community. Such individuals were crucial during the 2013 floods in that they were able to relay information from service organizations to other homeless individuals (and vis-à-vis) about where to seek shelter and access resources.

While this research is focused on the experiences of homeless-service providers in Boulder, Colorado, the findings speak to some of the difficulties imposed upon other community-based and nonprofit organizations elsewhere in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from disasters. Underfunded and overburdened nonprofit and community-based social service organizations, such as homeless shelters and mental health organizations, are often ill-equipped during disasters to effectively aid those most vulnerable, despite a growing need for their services (Ritchie et al. 2010; Tierney 2013). Research on community-based and nonprofit organizations’ ability to effectively manage risk and response to hazards and disasters is especially pertinent as FEMA continues to stress the importance of a whole community approach to emergency management (FEMA 2015).


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