When hurricanes strike, unhoused people seem forgotten

On my quest to see as much of the world as I can with the time I have left on this planet, I have mastered the skills of three-day trip planning. One of the places a travel partner and I picked out recently was the low country of Georgia and South Carolina, partly because of its rich culture directly linked to the history of slavery. When we purchased the flights long ago, we were not even aware of what time a year it was for that part of the country.  

On the day of our departure, we rushed to the airport running late as usual, without checking the weather forecast for our destination. It never occurred to us that it was hurricane season, when we touched down at our base in Savannah. We’d almost have to pay dearly for that lapse a few days later. See what happens when you’re rushing. 

We drove up the coast of South Carolina to Hilton Head Island, and then to an old friend’s family home near Myrtle Beach. We weren’t even listening for weather warnings, just a beach music station. We saw all the vacationing people like ourselves enjoying the sunny weather.  

And all along as I do when going anywhere, I was on the lookout for people experiencing homelessness, and found many even in areas that were supposed to be “upscale.” I noticed them in the resort towns as well as in Savannah, in the places I’d normally look. Even in this sleepy southern city, they were there, especially in the shopping districts favored by the tourists. Yes, they were, if you have the eyes to see them. The weather was great, so I thought if I had to experience homelessness, this place with a year-round mild climate would do. But the one thing that I forgot about was that this area is in the path of hurricanes from time to time. And when we woke up the next morning, I could see something was different in the sky. 

There was an eerie feeling all around as the dollar store near my hotel boarded up its windows. Did I miss a notice about a Black Lives Matter rally or something? We turned on NPR and really got woke up with the news that this area might be in the path of Ian. When others asked me if I’d heard about it, I thought that they were talking about some guy. The storm was predicted to reach land as a category 3 or 4, possibly as a direct hit. All of a sudden, special news flashes came over both our cell phones and interrupted all radio programming with warnings. 

That’s when I said to myself: “What about the homeless?” Almost everything I listened to had given detailed instructions on what to do, but I heard absolutely nothing about those who were unhoused. What would be their lot? If you’re homeless, evacuate where, and how? 

On our last full day there, the sky told the story of what was to come. I’ve heard about how the animals know first and I noticed flocks of birds flying off in formation. Had I been paying attention, I’d have noticed they were headed away from the impending danger. But all around town that afternoon, I didn’t sense panic. Maybe because the residents are so used to these emergency situations. I was not. 

We decided to soldier on, but the sky got darker as we left our late lunch where only one other couple was dining. As we drove around the crowds of shoppers and tourists got thinner as people headed in to prepare. Yet still, I saw no efforts on the streets aimed at taking the unhoused to safety. As I started towards the museums, I looked for my brothers and sisters and saw some police officers talking to individuals as I ran into a souvenir shop trying to address my obsession with travel magnets. At 3:00 p.m., the pedestrian mall had none of the previous day’s tourists and unhoused people. 

We started to panic a little, thinking about what we had seen of New Orleans last year, where you could still see the damage from Katrina and homeless encampments everywhere. I’d heard that special shelters had been set up for peoples’ pets, and a call for volunteers to round up pets and rescue animal lovers who couldn’t bear leaving without them. I remember news reports of flamingos being put in bathrooms for safety. But mysteriously, I heard absolutely nothing about any efforts to pluck the unhoused off the streets ahead of the storm.

After a mad rush to make a 6:00 a.m. full flight the next morning, in an hour or so we were back to BWI and grateful to be out of harm’s way. But very quickly I was hit with a bout of survivor’s guilt for having a place to go home to. Driving in it was hard not to think about the faces I saw on the streets of Savannah and the surrounding areas. What will happen to them? Having been homeless in Michigan in the winter, I understood what it was like to be stuck outside in the elements. Which is worse, being outside in several feet of snow or trying to stay alive in waist-high water? 

So, I started to make calls to contacts at national homeless organizations, and got a few different responses to my questions about policy for the safety of those unhoused on the street during a weather emergency. The partial answers I got were disturbing. 

It seems there are local, state and national policies concerning shelters during a major weather event, but they didn’t make much sense. I heard of getting people out prior to the storm hitting, but nothing on the news about where the homeless should go. I even heard the mayor of Charleston encouraging its citizens to go home, stay put, and batten down the hatches. But how would that work for the residents with no homes and no hatches? Should they do what a 62-year-old homeless Florida man did, according to The Washington Post — seek shelter under a Burger King’s awning in a folding chair? This man had already suffered three heart attacks. I guess he was one of the lucky ones. 

It’s sad that franchises may be the only option for some when the most community members were being searched for and rounded up by an army of volunteers who even used apps to count and find some unaccounted-for citizens. How’s that supposed to work out for poor and unhoused people, many of whom don’t have an operating smartphone? 

In a few of those telephone inquiries, sources suggested that homeless people would be eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency shelters. But the President of the United States has to declare a national emergency before FEMA comes in. That’s right, no shelters before the storms — only after. So, somehow if you’re unhoused you first have to survive the event to get emergency shelter. Sounds backwards, doesn’t it?

What I’ve learned from all of this is each and every one of us who truly cares about the everyday plight of the homeless now need to add to their list of concerns: What is the local plan for our fellow men and women who may be caught in weather we’d never consider going out in?  

information about New Signature, a Washington DC tech solutions and consulting firm


email updates

We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.