Tay smokes a cigarette flanked by the pillars that support the “Up Top” streets; April 6, 2020 Credit: Lloyd DeGrane

This story is part of a package on homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Click here to read the accompanying piece.

As local, state, and federal authorities step up their COVID-19 response, one of the most pressing issues is managing Chicago’s existing (and sure-to-be-growing) homelessness crisis. An estimated 86,000 people are homeless in the city, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Tens of thousands live “doubled up” with relatives or friends, and between 5,000 and 6,000 people are on the street or in “congregant” emergency shelters such as the Pacific Garden Mission or Franciscan Outreach shelters.

So far, there’ve been no confirmed cases or deaths from the novel coronavirus among Chicago’s homeless population. In a statement to the Reader the city said its Department of Public Health epidemiologists “investigate and track all reported cases of COVID-19 within all congregate settings in the city, including homeless shelters.” Nevertheless, with tests in short supply and a grave lack of access to health care among this population, public health experts and housing advocates are bracing for the worst.

The city has launched a variety of initiatives to help homeless people stay safe and access shelter during the pandemic. Porta-potties and handwashing stations have been installed at several encampments. Some 700 new shelter beds were created at area YMCAs to help existing emergency shelters implement social distancing protocols, like moving beds six feet apart. Two thousand $1,000 emergency housing assistance grants were created (for which the city received 83,000 applications in six days) and more are in the pipeline with fundraising help from the Family Independence Initiative.

The hundreds of local hotel rooms designated as isolation housing, however, are not currently available to homeless people trying to get off the streets. Instead, they’re reserved for health-care workers and “individuals who either have a COVID-19 diagnosis or who are awaiting test results, but who cannot safely return home and do not need hospital care,” according to the mayor’s office.

And so the most direct way to get a roof over one’s head remains through an existing emergency shelter. To get into a shelter, people have to call 311, or go to a police station, hospital, or city drop-in center for a referral to a location that can accommodate them. CDPH has issued a set of guidelines and a questionnaire for shelters to screen every incoming person for COVID-19 symptoms.

While some smaller shelters have stopped taking new clients to help protect those already in their care, others, such as Franciscan Outreach (the largest city-funded emergency shelter), have continued to receive new guests. Currently, Franciscan is serving 400 people across its three shelter facilities and at one of the new YMCA locations brokered by the city.

“We have protocols in place for disinfecting all of our sites,” said Laura Reilly, Franciscan’s director of development and marketing. “Our staff is also screening for symptoms of coronavirus.” Reilly said that donations of personal hygiene and cleaning supplies are needed now more than ever but that the organization is managing to supply all guests and staff with masks. She added that teams of medical workers from Rush University Medical Center and other health-care providers conduct symptom surveys and temperature checks for every person staying at their facilities multiple times a day. “We don’t have tests, so if people are exhibiting signs and symptoms then they’re transported to a designated hotel to isolate,” Reilly explained. “And if people are seriously ill they’ll be transferred to a hospital instead of a hotel.” So far two people who’d been staying at Franciscan shelters have been transferred to the isolation hotel rooms.

Despite attempts to increase social distancing and ramped-up medical screening at shelters, many homeless advocates argue that traditional “congregant” shelters, even with beds spaced farther apart, are not safe during a pandemic. “It hasn’t happened yet that tons of people in shelters are getting sick, but it’s going to happen,” says Julie Dworkin, policy director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “Shelters really don’t have the ability to follow the ideal CDC guidance, which is isolated rooms.”

The Chicago Housing Initiative, Illinois Public Health Association, and more than 1,300 online petition signatories have called on the Chicago Housing Authority to make some 2,000 units of vacant public housing available for the homeless. But so far “there’s complete resistance on the part of the CHA and complete inaction on the part of the mayor’s office” in response to this idea, said CHI executive director Leah Levinger.

“Most vacant CHA units are not concentrated within one or two buildings but are interspersed among other family and senior buildings across the City, making it impractical and ill-advised to house groups of people who need to be isolated or quarantined due to coronavirus,” CHA spokeswoman Molly Sullivan wrote in a statement. Besides that, “many of those units are not habitable or leasable.”

Sullivan also wrote that the housing assistance efforts already being undertaken by the city “are designed to address an immediate need while not disrupting the CHA housing process or further extending wait-list times for housing throughout the City. The City isn’t currently contemplating CHA units for these interventions.”

Sullivan said that homeless families on the agency’s waiting list—now topping 145,000 applicants—already receive priority when units become available.

The federal stimulus package passed in March includes $12 billion for various Department of Housing and Urban Development programs, including $4 billion for homeless assistance, and the state has also allocated $8 million for homeless programs. However, the speed with which these funds will be available in Chicago is unclear.

“We are working to ensure that anyone that does get housed because they become ill does not end up homeless again after they recover,” said Dworkin of CCH. “We are working on advocating to use federal recovery resources to get people into temporary housing units rather than hotel rooms, and then linking them to permanent housing.”

Meanwhile, for the people still living on the streets and in encampments, the most pressing need now is food. As pedestrians have disappeared so have donations of food and spare change that help sustain this population. Some of the charities that provide meals to people on the streets have cut back their operations to comply with social distancing guidelines, too.

“I haven’t seen a lot of people who [have symptoms of COVID-19] but we are seeing a lot of people who are having a lot of problems finding food,” said Noam Greene, who leads the Night Ministry’s street medicine outreach. Their team travels around the city in a specialized van to provide basic health-care services to the homeless (and can be called out as needed at 773-256-7549). While the Night Ministry has temporarily suspended HIV testing in the van, and still doesn’t have coronavirus tests, it’s continuing to distribute limited quantities of food, such as nonperishable snacks and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, as well as the overdose reversal drug Narcan.

“There’s a lot of issues with people accessing whatever drugs or alcohol they might be using,” Greene said. “We’re actually finding that sometimes that leads to an increase in overdosing because if you go down on your dose and then get access to your drugs again you’re more susceptible to overdose.” As dealers socially distance too, those who might want to use the dry spell to reduce their drug use or get clean are finding it harder to access detox services because local health-care providers are overwhelmed, Greene explained.

There have already been documented outbreaks of the virus at shelters in San Francisco and New York City. Anecdotally, advocates have heard of people leaving Chicago congregant shelters in favor of sleeping on the streets, especially with the weather improving.

“Shelters are powder kegs, it’s really a blessing this pandemic hit in the spring and not in the winter,” said Levinger. “Spacing beds six feet apart when everyone is using the same door handles and bathrooms to me seems a little bit like window dressing. It’s no fault of any guests or workers, it’s just everyone is living in a really tight space . . . I know because I live in a Catholic Worker house. We’re doing intense cleaning protocols, but it’s a shared kitchen, shared bathrooms, we’re packed in together, we share air together.”   v