Initial Publication Date: April 10, 2014

Homeless Shelters Preparing for Hurricane Sandy

Marc Settembrino, Sociology and Criminal Justice, Southeastern Louisiana University


Disaster research has traditionally examined how housed individuals and families prepare for events such as hurricanes. While important, this has resulted in a body of literature that presents housed individuals as the hegemonic disaster victims. Aside from Drabek's (1999) study of tourists and other transients little is known about how the homeless, and homeless service providers prepare for a hurricane's landfall. Hurricane Sandy's impact on the Mid-Atlantic provides an immediate opportunity to enhance our understanding in this area. This case study examines how homeless shelters in Atlantic City and Hoboken, NJ prepared for Sandy's landfall.

Upon learning of Sandy's trajectory, both the Hoboken Shelter and Atlantic City Rescue Mission began implementing their emergency plans. Although the shelter is located in a basement the city allowed the shelter to remain open provided that they relocate to the 2nd floor of the building. In the 48 hours leading up to Sandy's landfall, shelter staff, guests and volunteers, began prepping for the storm. They already had supplies on hand, but needed to relocate the materials to higher floors. Additionally, they initiated an aggressive outreach campaign to reach the unsheltered homeless. This campaign was especially focused on unsheltered men and women living at the Hoboken train station. Furthermore, the shelter suspended their "banned list" to allow anyone needing shelter to have a safe place during the storm. In total, the shelter had about 100 homeless men and women taking shelter from Sandy, nearly double their average nightly guest count of about 50.

According to the shelter director, many of the unsheltered homeless at the train station either made their way to the Hoboken Shelter or other emergency shelters in the area. Although the Hoboken Shelter opened their doors to anyone, I learned from my group interview with shelter guests that some unsheltered homeless decided not to go to the shelter. For example, one man reported that two of his friends were sleeping near the station when they were woken up by floodwaters entering the station. The man felt like although an effort had been made by the HS to create a safe space for everyone, not enough was done in general to get the word out and the homeless off the street. In addition to the Hoboken Shelter, the city of Hoboken also operated an emergency evacuation shelter. Two women participating in the group interviewed stated that they went to the city emergency shelter. When asked how their experience was, they described it as "nice" noting that they had a place to sleep and food to eat. They explained that they were at the city shelter until it was evacuated and they were sent to another location. They claim that in the event of another hurricane they would go to the shelter again.

During Sandy's landfall the Hoboken Shelter lost power. They had flashlights on hand but did not have any other light sources. After the storm passed the shelter was able to borrow a generator from a near by construction site.

In Atlantic City, the Rescue Mission evacuated roughly 200 homeless men and women to a church several miles inland. Before evacuating, several of the shelter guests helped to secure the property. Furthermore, shelter outreach workers canvased the city to encourage unsheltered homeless men and women to find a safe place to stay. As in Hoboken, the Rescue Mission staff reported opening their doors to anyone who needed shelter during Sandy. Interestingly, although the evacuation was a disruption of their normal routines and shelter operations, the Rescue Mission's guests spoke of the six-day evacuation positively. In fact, some even described it as a "vacation". While evacuated, shelter guests explained that they were allowed to sleep-in and watch television, and did not have to complete their regular shelter chores. Additionally, the church's worship band held a special concert for the evacuees.

While the Rescue Mission evacuated their guest and many of Atlantic City's unsheltered homeless, some homeless men and women stayed behind. I learned from the shelter's outreach coordinator, Kyle, that unsheltered homeless that did not evacuate with the Rescue Mission might have utilized the city emergency shelter or found other temporary shelter. While touring the city, I met one Rita, an unsheltered homeless woman who was eating lunch at a soup kitchen. She explained that she took shelter in an abandoned home during Sandy. She described her experience as "fine" and "uneventful".

Individuals with expertise/responsibilities in the following areas have helped create the case study:
  • Staff and Volunteers, Hoboken Shelter
  • Staff and Volunteers, Atlantic City Rescue Mission
  • Homeless Women and Men in Atlantic City and Hoboken, NJ

Key teaching points:
  • The homeless face unique challenges in preparing for natural hazards
  • Homeless shelters play an important role in reducing risk for homeless men and women
  • Homeless shelters and service providers should be included in local emergency planning and response efforts

How this example is used in the classroom:
This example will be used to facilitate learning and discussion of the unique risks that homeless men and women related to natural hazards.


Drabek, T.E. (1999). Disaster evacuation responses by tourists and other types of transients. International Journal of Public Administration, 22(5), 655-677.

Settembrino, M. R. (2013)."The Effects of Hurricane Sandy on the Homeless" Quick Response Grant, Natural Hazards Center. Available at:

Yelvington, K. (1997). "Coping in a temporary way: The tent cities." Pp. 92-115 in Hurricane Andrew: Ethnicity, Gender and the Sociology of Disasters, edited by W. G. Peacock, B. H. Morrow, and H. Gladwin. London and New York: Routledge.