By Claire Cowley
Local organizations partnered with progressive aldermen in June to push the City to protect vulnerable populations by providing permanent housing. The housing crisis has worsened due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, census data shows an estimated 77,000 Chicagoans homeless since 2018.
The coronavirus has added to homeless people’s concerns. During the state-wide lockdown, testing done in shelters found between 30% and 45% of that population with confirmed coronavirus cases, according to the Chicago Housing Initiative.
Advocates for the homeless say social distancing to decrease spread in a shelter is not possible, and to shelter in place people need homes in which to shelter.
Terry Carr, who lives in a tent encampment on south Canalport and Union Avenues, said some homeless people unfortunately return to the streets because they may go to a shelter and not like it.
“There are a lot of nasty, crazy people you don’t want to deal with,” Carr said. “Some choices are good and some are not. There are some people who have a security system in their home and never feel safe,” so how can he feel safe outside?
“You got some wild people who come out while people are sleeping and throw firecrackers,” Carr said. “People were beating us up because they thought coronavirus is from homeless people.”
Carr noted the City provides testing, hand-washing stations, and masks.
One difficulty homeless people living outside face due to the coronavirus is no more access to Chicago Park District restrooms where they took showers, Carr said.
“Some of them are still open, but are so far away that I don’t go,” Carr said. Instead, “I can take a bucket and three bottles of water and improvise.”
Carr said his relatives know where he is. He does not want to be on the streets for long.
“I’m temporarily here because I lost my job,” Carr explained. “I lost my mom and dad at an early age and I had a little setback with drinking. I learned you can’t let that knock you down, you have to pick yourself up and move on.”
The City is going to provide Carr with a rent-free apartment for one year until he finds employment, Carr said.
Carr said he was married with foster kids and a home, and that personal history makes him look forward to getting permanent housing soon.
Social distancing difficulty
Susan Cheng, an epidemiologist from the Illinois Pubic Health Association who also is an associate professor in the Department of Public Health at Benedictine University, said the ability to put physical barriers up is the best way to socially distance. The homeless may not be able to create such barriers.
“In an apartment complex where you have multiple individuals living in the same building, they typically live in their own unit,” Cheng said. Having those walls, doors, and separate air ventilation makes a difference in how quickly disease can spread. Shelters, however, may a lack physical distance between individuals while they are sleeping in close beds at nighttime, she added.
“When you don’t have physical barriers to decrease the spread of those virus particles in a group setting, you have particles reaching a much larger amount of people,” Cheng said.
All it would take is two cases due to the respiratory rise of transmission for coronavirus in a shelter to cause problems.
“There would be a lot of cases once it starts spreading in a shelter,” she said. Dealing with the homeless “has to be seen as a part of the city’s greater COVID-19 response.”
At the Boulevard of Chicago, 3456 W. Franklin Blvd., where ill and injured homeless results reside and are provided with housing services to break the cycle of homelessness, CEO Jennifer Nelson-Seals said, “During the coronavirus, we had to decrease our capacity from 64 beds to 40 beds—that’s with the spacing. Back in March, we faced multiple of our staff members contracting the disease and so we went through the process, thank God, of onsite Federally Qualified Health center COVID-19 resources (FQAC)/ Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) wellness where we were able to work quickly in identifying those individuals who came through the door with fevers or who were already here with fevers.”
Nelson-Seals continued, “We were able to react quickly and support them, making sure we were keeping other residents safe from those who were experiencing symptoms. We also had some people who were asymptomatic, so I think we did a great job in making sure we did temperature checks everyday and checking vitals.
“We were educating ourselves on PPE, making sure we wore face masks, shields, and also the gowns to make sure we’re keeping ourselves safe,” she added.
“We were already turning away three times as many people as we were serving and now we will turn even more people away that need our program,” Nelson-Seals explained.
“If you don’t come to the Boulevard, the next step would be a nursing home. The hospitals are actually working on situations where people may have to go to a nursing home or individuals may be sent out on the street.
“I think the City could help us in helping the community in increasing awareness,” she said.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot publicly touted hotel contracts as one of her solutions to house the city’s homeless population, but some experts on the homeless found the solution is not sufficient.
Julie Dworkin, director of policy at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said moving people into hotels was a great stop-gap measure, but homeless people need permanent housing.
“The hotels just aren’t sustainable,” Dworkin said. “It’s very expensive, hotels want to become hotels again, and it’s very restrictive for someone who is vulnerable.”
Dworkin said her organization has partnered with the Chicago Housing Initiative to push for a public housing health ordinance to tap into the City’s existing housing resources.
The ordinance would require any applicant seeking City-controlled housing funds to achieve and maintain a 97% occupancy rate of City-subsidized housing and an average 60-day vacant turn-around time to re-lease a subsidized apartment after someone moves out.
Also, applicants must create a leasing preference for their subsidized apartments for medically vulnerable people for the next 24 months during the pandemic.
“This would be a zero cost way for the City to provide housing for these vulnerable populations,” Dworkin said.
Dworkin said if the City Council approves this ordinance, the housing application process will “unfortunately remain the same.” People can apply for housing, complete an assessment, and be placed on a list that has “never been sufficient,” Dworkin said.
Dworkin said Chicago is going to see “a lot more” people experiencing homelessness.
“The housing resources to house people before the pandemic were completely inadequate and now, as we know, so many people are going to be impacted by losing their jobs, loss of income, and health issues,” Dworkin said.
Kate Walz, vice president of advocacy at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, said she thinks the proposed ordinance improves coordination within the city and among housing developers.
Walz said housing providers can meet their occupancy requirements by providing housing to the homeless, while the City can offer City dollars simultaneously, under the proposed ordinance.
“The goal is to ensure that the City and developers are a part of a combined strategy to house people,” Walz said.
Walz hopes the City and housing providers will support this effort because “this is something we all need to be backing and supporting.”
Officials introduced the ordinance at a virtual city council press conference on July 22.
City Department of Family and Support Services Director of Public Affairs Quenjana Olayeni discussed what the City is doing to house vulnerable populations during the coronavirus pandemic.
“For continued support services, DFSS recommended that $15.7 million in Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) CARES funds support an Expedited Housing Initiative (EHI) in collaboration with the Chicago Continuum of Care, which includes the Chicago Department of Public Health and the Department of Housing,” Olayeni said.
“Using ESG rapid re-housing funds, EHI utilizes housing as an effective public health intervention to ensure homeless Chicagoans at high risk of serious illness due to COVID-19 are rapidly housed so they can maintain their health in their own home,” Olayeni noted. “With this investment, the City, through its partner organizations, anticipates moving 1,250 high risk residents from the shelter system into permanent housing and achieve stability in that housing through a combination of short- to medium-level rental assistance, supportive services, and connection to permanent subsidies.”
For Boulevard of Chicago, call (773) 533-6013 or log on to www.blvd.org. To contact Cheng, call (630) 829-6181. The Chicago Housing Initiative can be reached at (773) 787-6875 or www.chicagohousinginitiative.org. Contact DFSS at (312) 743-0300. For Dworkin and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, call (312) 641-4140 or log on to www.chicagohomeless.org. To contact Walz and the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, call (773) 793-3560 or log on to www.povertylaw.org.