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When Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a statewide shelter-in-place order on March 20 to slow the spread of novel coronavirus, staff members and volunteers at homeless shelters were faced with two big questions: Should they shutter their shelters' doors, and, if they don't, how were they going to continue to care for their clients while ensuring everyone's safety?
For years, social service organizations like Housing Forward and BEDS Plus have helped and supported of people in need across Cook County. The two organizations, alone, have offered about 14,000 nights of care annually at their emergency shelters. So, the thought of closing those facilities posed even bigger questions: What happens to the homeless during this "shelter in place," and where can they go?
Erik Johnson, development and communications director at Housing Forward, and Valerie Vedral, social media specialist at BEDS Plus, didn't have the answers right away, but they, along with their colleagues, had to think – and think fast.
"Folks who are homeless are far more vulnerable to the virus than you and I and somebody who is typically housed," Johnson said. "They're out in the elements far more frequently than we are. They don't have reliable and ongoing medical care, so they're at greater medical risk. Many of the people we serve already have a compromised health status, if not a compromised immune system."
Housing Forward is built on a rotating shelter model, often partnering with local churches in a string of suburbs, including Berwyn, North Riverside, Oak Park and Maywood.
"We have 12 shelter sites that on any given night are available for our clients to go to," Johnson said, adding clients can stay from 7:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. "We provide them a hot dinner and then breakfast in the morning, and we send them with a bagged lunch."
BEDS Plus is also comprised of overnight shelters and two day centers, one in La Grange and another in south suburban Worth.
As the number of coronavirus cases grew quickly and daily, Johnson and Vedral knew that having multiple shelters open could put their clients, as well as themselves, their staff and volunteers, at risk. By that point, Pritzker, backed by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and public health officials, called for closures, starting with schools.
Restaurants and bars could no longer serve dine-in customers. Places of worship were told to stop holding services. Government buildings like city halls and police stations, as well as public spaces, such as libraries, were closed.
For the homeless, some of these spots are another source of refuge or resource. Now that they weren't open, the pressure for Johnson and Vedral was on.
"We were really working fast and furious to create accommodations that provided them the possibility to 'shelter in place,'" Johnson said.
Ahead of Pritzker's March 20 announcement, Vedral said that she and her team decided to close their day centers and consolidate all shelter operations to one location. They also had to make the tough decision to not only cut back their number of volunteers, but to not accept new clients. Following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines, Vedral said they couldn't accommodate more than 50 clients.
"We really have limited the amount of people of that are coming in and out," she said, adding BEDS Plus took another step and placed other clients in nearby motels.
Johnson echoed Vedral's sentiments.
Leaders at the Oak Park Temple, one of Housing Forward's partners, offered their space and became the sole 24-hour emergency shelter site. This move was done a few days prior to Pritzker's "shelter in place" mandate, as well.
"We knew that we also had to have an eye on the next step," Johnson said.
"We rely on volunteers greatly just for our normal shelter system," he continued. "And, all of a sudden we're more than doubling the demand. We knew we could get by for a period of time, and this was not our long-term solution."
In the midst of scrambling for viable solutions and some stability, Housing Forward received more troubling news. On March 21, Johnson and his staff learned that one of their own had tested positive for COVID-19, and "we recognized that we probably needed to figure out a more permanent option."
Housing Forward immediately closed the 24-hour site and turned to their community for aid. They reached out to neighbors and officials from village of Oak Park and the Oak Park Health Department.
"In the course of just a little over 26 hours, we went from having a shelter for 26 people to having all those people in independent accommodations," Johnson said, extending gratitude to the local landlords, who volunteered their units for temporary housing.
And, while these acts of kindness and unity have given Johnson and Vedral a moment of relief, they are bracing themselves for the next waves of issues, one of them being how long the coronavirus pandemic will last.
"We are expecting about a hundred thousand dollars or more of unexpected expenses due to the COVID-19 pandemic," Vedral said.
Vedral said that they have currently placed nine individuals and four families in area motels, and the average cost for a night is roughly $75. The uncertainty of the pandemic leaves a lot of things out of control for Johnson and Vedral.
"We're really just, you know, seeing what's going on with the government," Vedral said. "So, we're monitoring things, and we will be making adjustments as needed based on what the state governor decides or what the federal government decides."
For now, Johnson and Vedral are reaching out to their communities for monetary donations. On their websites, Housing Forward and BEDS Plus have created an emergency response fund, which will help buy groceries, meals, employ shelter staff and more.
The goal, right now, Vedral said is this: "We plan to operate the consolidated site for as long as we need to and as long as we can."
For information on Housing Forward or to make a donation, visit www.housingforward.org/covid-19-updates. To learn more about BEDS Plus or give a monetary donation, visit beds-plus.org/ways-you-can-help/donate-money/.