Homeless Chicago residents “cannot close their doors to this virus,” said Mayor Lori Lightfoot at a press conference Monday after announcing additional efforts to help the city’s most vulnerable population including moving them into hotel rooms.
In mid-March before the stay-at-home order was announced, advocacy groups and nonprofits were already anticipating a sharp increase in the number of people who’d be seeking their services. If coronavirus shows up at shelters and encampments, “it will spread like wildfire,” Neli Vazquez Rowland, president and co-founder of A Safe Haven Foundation said at the end of March.
The city’s health department doesn’t normally provide housing, but back in January when Chicago only had one case officials were already working to find extra shelter space and isolation facilities, said Dr. Allison Arwady, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.
Last month, the city partnered with the YMCA to create additional shelter space which helped decrease shelters that were near-capacity, according to the mayor. Since then, the city has worked with the Salvation Army to bring 699 more beds with some of the spaces dedicated to women and children.
For homeless people who test positive for COVID-19, there is an isolation facility with 100 individual rooms. Support from A Safe Haven, Rush University Medical Center, and Heartland Alliance allows the facility to offer counseling for mental health and substance use, too.
“Stopping the outbreak in Chicago’s homeless population has been one of the most challenging aspects of this response. We are not done. We’re working very hard to limit the spread where we can. There’s some really innovative work being done where we are moving individuals into hotels that the city secured,” said Dr. Arwady. “The best thing to do is to take these high risk folks and give them a safe place to be.”
As a precautionary measure, the city has started housing homeless residents who also have underlying conditions or are over the age of 60. The Christian Health Center has helped the city move at least 100 people into hotel rooms. In the coming days, more will be placed in hotel rooms, the mayor said.
“The current COVID-19 pandemic, like the opioid overdose epidemic, has accentuated the need for supportive housing to improve the health of those experiencing homelessness,” said Thomas D. Huggett, medical director of Mobile Health at Lawndale Christian Health Center, who has provided primary care in West Side shelters for the last 24 years. “We have patients asking for cleaning supplies to clean their own rooms, while they make significant progress with their medical and even mental health issues. Our model contributes more evidence that people experiencing homelessness, like any of us, do better when they have safe, supported housing.”
There are also a number of protective measures that are protecting shelter staff and homeless residents. First, testing is more accessible which could help prevent a case from rapidly spreading throughout an encampment or shelter. Workers with the Department of Family Support Services are looking for those who might be sick and quickly moving them into a place they can isolate if they are positive for COVID-19.
In addition to more testing, there are 12 portable washrooms and hand-washing stations which staff check regularly. All shelters also get regular visits from nurses who provide education about COVID-19 and health screenings. The health department and medical students from Rush University Medical Center also distributed 25,000 pieces of personal protective equipment donated by Project Hope to shelter residents, staff and outreach teams.