Cover: Exploring the Impact of COVID-19 on Social Services for Vulnerable Populations in Los Angeles

Exploring the Impact of COVID-19 on Social Services for Vulnerable Populations in Los Angeles

Lessons Learned from Community Providers

Published Aug 24, 2020

by Stephanie Brooks Holliday, Sarah B. Hunter, Alex R. Dopp, Margaret Chamberlin, Martin Y. Iguchi

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Research Questions

  1. How are service providers in Los Angeles County responding to the COVID-19 pandemic?
  2. What are the lessons learned from and innovative strategies for dealing with the pandemic for social services organizations?

The speed and scale of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has disrupted the social safety net in the United States. This includes social services organizations that support both individuals currently experiencing or at risk of homelessness and those involved with the criminal justice system.

The authors of this report conducted semistructured interviews with representatives from social services organizations in Los Angeles County. These interviews assessed how these service providers are responding to COVID-19. The interviews also uncovered lessons learned and innovative strategies for dealing with the pandemic that could be more broadly disseminated. The authors recount these interviews and lessons learned, and provide recommendations for social services organizations.

Key Findings

  • Organizations relied on information from a variety of sources when developing their pandemic response plans, including national and international health–related organizations, state and local public health agencies, and internal expertise.
  • Most providers have shifted to providing virtual services, including video- and telephone-based care. Community-based work has continued, when essential, with additional safety protocols (e.g., use of personal protective equipment, staggered shifts).
  • Facilitators (i.e., facilitating factors) of continued services included available technology, additional funding, proactive organizational leadership, dedicated staff, and organizational flexibility.
  • Barriers to providing services included a lack of technology access among clients, reductions in revenue and workforce, difficulties having clients maintain shelter-in-place procedures, and additional stressors on staff.
  • COVID-19 has the potential to disproportionately affect individuals experiencing or at risk for homelessness, or who are involved with the criminal justice system. These individuals might have decreased access to services, more adverse economic and behavioral health outcomes, more difficulty determining what is accurate information, and an increased exposure risk.
  • When creating plans to guide providers' responses to future phases of the pandemic, providers could consider ways to increase client access technology, measure and address inequities, and leverage increased policy flexibility to speed access to services. Supporting staff well-being and health is also critical.


  • Provide psychoeducation to clients regarding COVID-19 to address misperceptions or challenges identifying accurate sources of information.
  • Increase client access to technology, including providing devices (e.g., smart phones) and expanding public Wi-Fi access.
  • Help clients become more comfortable with technology-enabled care, such as through the use of existing training curricula.
  • Focus on equity issues because the COVID-19 pandemic is creating disproportionate impacts that will likely widen over time.
  • Continue to enforce safety protocols, including use of COVID-19 testing and personal protective equipment, as well as physical distancing.
  • Leverage increased policy flexibility to speed access to services.
  • Support staff well-being and health, such as by providing opportunities for consultation or making staff aware of resources for providers on the front lines of pandemic response.
  • Develop disease outbreak–response plans to increase future preparedness, which might include plans for ensuring adequate supplies and a leadership structure for rapid response.

Research conducted by

Funding for this research was provided by gifts from Pardee RAND Graduate School supporters and income from operations. This research was conducted in the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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