As city of Chicago ramps up its response to COVID-19, homeless advocates stress the need to expand on solutions

Today, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced her plan to ensure that all Chicago residents are cared for during the coronavirus pandemic. The plan includes two key measures: First, up to 2,000 hotel rooms will be made available for people who are exposed to or mildly ill with COVID-19 and unable to self-quarantine or isolate themselves at home. Second, the city has partnered with the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago to expand its shelter capacity and add another 400 beds to an already burdened shelter system, with another 500 anticipated later this week.

The announcement represents a significant step forward in the city’s fight to tackle this unprecedented crisis and its potentially dire repercussions on people experiencing homelessness. We thank Mayor Lightfoot’s administration, the YMCA, and all other civic leaders who have worked in concert and offered their support and resources to begin to address this profound need.

At the same time, additional steps to protect the city’s large homeless population from contracting the virus – an instrumental part of the strategy to limit its spread throughout our community – will be needed very quickly if Chicago is to effectively contain and conquer this threat.

In conversations with Mayor Lightfoot’s administration, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) has advocated for expanding isolation housing, amplifying on today’s initiative to expand shelter capacity and increase staffing.

Communal living spaces, such as homeless shelters and encampments, inherently impede the social distancing practices that have been declared a public health imperative at this time. And if the people living in these conditions cannot find safer refuge elsewhere, they pose a COVID-19 risk not only to themselves but to the general community at large. Accordingly, ensuring safe housing for those who are homeless and in a high risk category but not currently ill will require a larger number of units than what is currently proposed.

CCH estimates that over 2,800 units of isolation housing would be needed just for people experiencing homelessness. This response is what is needed to provide shelter for people living on the streets and those who are living in a shelter but remain particularly vulnerable because of their age or underlying health conditions.

“It is critical that we develop a comprehensive, preventative strategy for those that are living on the streets and those most vulnerable in our shelter system,” said Leeanna Majors, a grassroots leader with the coalition. “If we do not, it will be increasingly difficult to flatten the curve. We must also keep in mind that the problem of homelessness existed before this crisis and will continue once it is over, and we need to advance short-term solutions to the crisis at hand without forgetting the need for long-term permanent housing.”

The mayor’s plan includes a significant number of hotel rooms to alleviate the likely influx of people in our hospital system. We urge the city to expand this strategy to house more people experiencing homelessness who lack the resources to safely shelter-in-place and distance, as dictated by Gov. JB Pritzker.

In addition, the city leaders today mentioned offering shelter to those on the street who are highly vulnerable to the virus.  Experience has shown that people living on the street do not want to be in shelters and would be even less likely to accept shelter placement now when social distancing is recommended. The isolation housing strategy needs to include people living on the street to prevent an outbreak at encampments where people are highly vulnerable.

Additional staffing resources are also needed due to a variety of reasons. These include the increasing number of shelter staff not reporting to work, the need to staff for work previously done by volunteers no longer able to help, and the need to keep shelters open 24 hours so that people have somewhere to go during the day. Funding is needed for hazard pay, to hire additional staff, and for personal protective gear.

“We want to work with our partners in government to identify enough housing to meet the scope of the problem and advocate for the necessary funding,” said CCH Executive Director Doug Schenkelberg. “This plan is an important step forward. Let’s build on it.”