WBEZ: COVID-19, Economy And Oncoming Winter Are A Perfect Storm Of Crises For Chicago’s Homeless

By Mena Ahmad

Even before the pandemic, Chicago’s homeless population was on the rise. Back in January, Chicago saw its number of people experiencing homelessness increase for the first time since 2015. Now a pandemic, a battered economy and oncoming winter could mean a new wave of homelessness in the city. Reset takes a closer look at the issue.

GUESTS: Mary Tarullo, associate director for policy and strategy at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless

Luwana Johnson, director of shelter operations at Franciscan Outreach

Continue reading WBEZ: COVID-19, Economy And Oncoming Winter Are A Perfect Storm Of Crises For Chicago’s Homeless

VICE: What Homeless Students Have to Deal With to Go to School During COVID

As schools continue operating remotely, many homeless students are facing even more barriers to education than they did before the pandemic. VICE interviewed CCH grassroots leader Elizabeth Maldonado and her four children about their experience with remote learning from an Englewood shelter.

By Emma Ockerman

Most nights, people fight and scream outside the small room where Elizabeth Maldonado and her four children sleep—or try to, at least—at a homeless shelter in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. Maldonado’s 15-year-old daughter, in particular, fears that if she closes her eyes, someone will burst through the door.

It’s no wonder, then, that her kids—ages 17, 15, 12, and 9—often don’t log on to their virtual classes come morning, Maldonado said. They’re exhausted.

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Block Club Chicago: Fire Destroys Avondale Homeless Encampment — And Residents Think It Was A Hate Crime

Residents at the encampment need clothing, mattresses and other supplies after their belongings were set on fire, they said.

By Ariel Parrella-Aureli

AVONDALE — Multiple people were injured and had their belongings destroyed during a Monday fire at an encampment for people experiencing homelessness in Avondale.

Continue reading Block Club Chicago: Fire Destroys Avondale Homeless Encampment — And Residents Think It Was A Hate Crime

WBEZ: Remote Learning Creates Extra Barriers For Homeless CPS Students

Education Attorney Alyssa Phillips and grassroots leader April Harris joined WBEZ’s Reset to discuss barriers to remote learning for Chicago’s homeless students.

By Nereida Moreno

Remote learning begins Tuesday for nearly 400,000 students at Chicago Public Schools. But the fall semester may prove to be an extra challenge for the district’s homeless population — an estimated 16,500 students who rely on schools for Internet access and other resources.

Continue reading WBEZ: Remote Learning Creates Extra Barriers For Homeless CPS Students

South Side Weekly: Census Spotlight: Chicago Coalition for the Homeless

BY JOCELYN VEGA

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) is on a mission to ensure that people experiencing homelessness are counted in the 2020 Census by increasing awareness that housing status does not bar census participation. Gloria Davis, CCH’s Census 2020 project manager, is leading outreach efforts with unhoused populations, despite COVID-19.

Her work at CCH is “trying to find a way to have [the census] be a fair and accurate count—because it really hasn’t been for us,” said Davis. 

Continue reading South Side Weekly: Census Spotlight: Chicago Coalition for the Homeless

Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: COVID-19 outbreak at homeless shelters raises concerns for some still staying there

Hotel used to “shield” medically at-risk homeless people from virus is operating at capacity.

By Mark Brown, columnist

Robert Ewaniuk has been staying at a West Side homeless shelter operated by Franciscan Outreach for a little more than a week, during which he’s been tested twice for COVID-19 after other residents contracted the disease.

At age 54 and with several underlying health conditions including diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, Ewaniuk is considered high risk for coronavirus complications if he were to become infected.

Normally, those health problems would make Ewaniuk a candidate for a room at Hotel 166, a boutique tourist hotel off Michigan Avenue where the city has been housing some homeless people with medical needs to shield them from the virus.

But Hotel 166 is operating at capacity, as are other facilities the city has established to temporarily house at-risk homeless individuals during the pandemic.

The result is Ewaniuk and many others like him are stuck in limbo at shelters while they wait to learn whether the city can find a safer place for them.

Up to this point, Chicago has experienced amazing success in limiting the impact of the coronavirus on homeless people, especially in comparison to other individuals being housed in congregate settings such as nursing homes or the jail.

More than two months into the crisis, nobody living in a homeless shelter is known to have died from COVID-19, while only two staff members have died.

That’s commendable when you realize many shelter residents are the same age and have similar health issues as residents of nursing homes, where the death toll has been horrendous.

There is argument about how much of the credit for that success goes to city government itself as opposed to a group of health care professionals and nonprofit homeless service agencies who stepped in to provide their own safeguards and brought the city along in the process.

But it’s clear the city has taken extraordinary steps as well, from taking over hotels to opening extra shelter spaces across the city — both for the benefit of those recuperating from the illness and for those who needed to be protected from it.

The concern now is whether the city will maintain that commitment as the pandemic moves to its next phase.

Just last week, Franciscan Outreach experienced its first major outbreak of COVID-19 since the start of the crisis, with 19 individuals out of 80 testing positive at its main shelter on Harrison Street.

None of them showed symptoms of the disease, and all were transferred to isolation centers the city arranged previously for homeless individuals in their situation.

Some of those individuals have underlying health conditions and probably should have been moved sooner, as should many who are still at the shelter, said Richard Ducatenzeiler, executive director at Franciscan Outreach.

Ducatenzeiler said he believes the city’s efforts to provide “shield housing” have been very effective and saved many lives.

But as he was reminded the hard way with last week’s outbreak, the job is not finished.

“We need more options. COVID-19 is not going away in the next couple of weeks or months,” said Ducatenzeiler, whose shelters took numerous precautions in the early stages of the pandemic that kept the virus at bay until now.

Ducatenzeiler said he sees permanent housing solutions as the biggest need, so the homeless people staying in the hotel could be moved into their own apartments where possible.

In the meantime, he wants the city to look at opening more hotel beds for the homeless.

In a new report, the volunteer group that helped organize the city’s COVID-19 response says another 400 high-risk homeless persons could benefit from opening more hotel rooms or subsidized apartments.

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is urging the Lightfoot administration to use some of its federal pandemic relief funding under the CARES Act to put homeless people in apartments.

On Monday, a homeless resident at another Franciscan Outreach shelter where Ewaniuk is staying was hospitalized after coming down with a high fever and testing positive for the coronavirus.

“It scares the you-know-what out of me. I’ve been up all night worrying if I contracted it,” said Ewaniuk, who said he’s been hospitalized 14 times in the past for various ailments and is without his prescribed medication.

It will be a few days before he gets his test results.

Ewaniuk said this the first time in his life he’s been homeless. He was living with an aunt but got thrown out March 29 in a dispute over whether his comings and goings from her home were putting her at heightened risk of being infected by the virus.

Chicago deserves credit for protecting homeless people so far during the crisis. This is no time to ease up.

Chicago Tribune, Commentary: Imagine being homeless during COVID crisis. How Chicago can help.

By Dr. Evan Lyon and Brandi Calvert, MPH

At a time when staying at home has been equated with staying alive, perhaps few Chicagoans face greater peril from the coronavirus crisis than those experiencing homelessness. Then again, probably few people are more accustomed to living in crisis in the first place.

Long before the plague of COVID-19 rampaged across the city, homelessness in Chicago constituted an epidemic unto itself. And for the more than 86,000 city residents mired in its stranglehold, life was already a daily exercise in survival — it just didn’t come accompanied by the outpouring of government aid and the rush to find a cure that has arisen in response to the current pandemic.

In fact, efforts to remedy homelessness in Chicago have languished for precisely the opposite reason: a recurring scarcity of resources. So when the coronavirus buffeted the community, and Chicagoans were urged to stay home to protect their health, those experiencing homelessness were left virtually defenseless.

Indeed, homelessness in all of its configurations, from congregate shelters, to outdoor encampments, to “doubled-up” arrangements where multiple households huddle together under one roof, involves massing people in tight, dense environments that are fundamentally incompatible with the social distancing practices now considered sacrosanct in the fight against the pandemic.

To its credit, the city has recognized this danger. Last month, in announcing plans to provide safer spaces for people experiencing homelessness who are either infected by COVID-19 or at risk of contracting it, Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said, “Stopping the outbreak in Chicago’s homeless population has been one of the most challenging aspects of this response.”

To that end, the city reserved quarantine housing for people experiencing homelessness who are COVID-positive, and for a portion of those who are most vulnerable to the virus. These were important first steps. But subsequent events have demonstrated that it cannot be the last word. Recent news reports have documented a range of challenges impairing the quest to keep people experiencing homelessness safe. Not only have many shelters been compromised by rapidly escalating rates of COVID-19 infections, but due to the need to limit the normal capacity of these facilities to maintain social distancing, some people experiencing homelessness have no access to them in the first place.

Add to that a potentially catastrophic wave of foreclosures and evictions, and the current climate is dreadfully conducive to an escalation in homelessness that begets an escalation in COVID-19 infections.

Fortunately, the city has an immediate, and by some measures unprecedented, opportunity to address these emerging needs. As part of its share of new federal CARES Act coronavirus-relief funding, Chicago will receive millions of dollars in money designated for addressing homelessness.

Our strategy makes two key recommendations:

  • Allocate 40% of federal Community Development Block Grant funding to programs that provide assistance with rental, mortgage and utility payments to economically distressed households in danger of losing their homes. This would put some of the city’s skin in the game after Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled an effort last week to convince lenders and landlords to work cooperatively to grant concessions to tenants and homeowners who struggle to make housing payments.
  • Promote COVID-19 recovery and long-term housing prospects by designating 75% of federal Emergency Solutions Grants, a fund designated to combat homelessness, to an initiative that would place people who are experiencing homelessness into subsidized private rental units, rather than city-purchased quarantine and isolation spaces. Estimates show that this policy would cost only about one-third of what the city has invested in hotel rooms, and research has proven this model can form an effective “bridge” into permanent, stable housing for those without it.

The two measures won’t require new tax revenues or impinge on the city’s pre-existing budget — complications that are invariably cited during normal times when proposals to combat homelessness are introduced. Instead, they would channel CARES Act funds already coming to the city into programs that yield the biggest bang for the buck.

Moreover, they will allow at least some of the 86,000 Chicagoans experiencing homelessness to shelter safely in place not only for the duration of the pandemic, but possibly for good. As the current crisis has demonstrated in glaring terms, that’s crucial to the health and welfare of the entire city.

Evan Lyon, M.D., a doctor providing health care to people experiencing homelessness, is chief integrated health officer for Heartland Alliance Health.

Brandi Calvert, MPH, is senior director, housing operations, for the Center for Housing and Health, which provides permanent housing with services for people experiencing homelessness.

Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: COVID-19 outbreaks in homeless shelters threaten to outpace city response, doctor warns

Shelters are feeling pressure as they attempt to care for homeless guests who have tested positive for the infection yet they still must live alongside those who have tested negative.

By Mark Brown, Chicago Sun-Times columnist

A doctor who is working with Chicago’s homeless shelters to contain the spread of COVID-19 is sounding the alarm over a looming breakdown in the city’s capacity to care for homeless people who contract the disease.

Dr. Evan Lyon, chief integrated health officer at Heartland Alliance Health, warned that coronavirus outbreaks at the shelters are on the verge of overrunning temporary housing the city has created to isolate sick and at-risk homeless individuals.

The problem became more clear this past week after the first extensive screening of shelter residents and staff revealed 30-45 percent tested positive for the virus at some locations.

Although more than 90 percent of the people testing positive are exhibiting no symptoms, the concern is those individuals could spread the illness further in the close confines of the shelters.

That, in turn, is increasing pressure on shelters as they attempt to care for homeless guests who have tested positive for the infection yet still must live alongside those who have tested negative—even as the shelters lose staff members to the illness and to the fear of it.

In addition, Lyon said, there is concern the shelters themselves, which were never designed to serve as health care settings, will become unable to function and “collapse” because too many staff members are sick or decide they can’t come to work.

“People I think will die because we’re not getting them up to better care,” warned Lyon, who got his medical degree from Harvard and has extensive international experience dealing with health crises, including a cholera outbreak in Haiti.

Look, nobody wants to be the little boy who cried wolf. I certainly don’t, and I’m confident Dr. Lyon doesn’t either.

But when lives are on the line, you don’t want to wait until it’s too late to speak up either.

Lyon’s warning comes less than a week after Mayor Lori Lightfoot held a press conference to tout the city’s efforts on behalf of the homeless during the pandemic.

And Lyon would be the first to tell you the city has taken extraordinary steps to meet the unique challenges COVID-19 poses to homeless people, who are highly vulnerable because of their living conditions and underlying health problems.

Lightfoot’s administration has rented out two downtown hotels—Hotel 166 and Hotel Julian—to care for convalescing homeless individuals and opened a new temporary isolation facility at A Safe Haven. It also has partnered with the YMCA of Metro Chicago and Salvation Army to open extra shelter beds to allow regular shelters to move out some of their guests and maintain appropriate social distancing for those left behind.

Everyone tells me there’s also been great collaboration between some of the city’s health providers—Rush University Medical Center, University of Illinois Health, Lawndale Christian Health Center and Heartland Alliance in particular—to step up and provide medical support at the temporary locations and shelters.

To date, no homeless person is known to have died from the disease in Cook County, which is remarkable given the rising death toll among the public at large and a credit to the efforts made so far.

So why sound the alarm? Because people I respect are telling me more needs to be done and that our luck is about to run out with potentially dire consequences.

Department of Family and Support Services Commissioner Lisa Morrison Butler and Department of Public Health Managing Deputy Commissioner Megan Cunningham told me Sunday the city is doing everything it can to protect the homeless and is prepared to do more as it responds to an evolving situation.

Tellingly, they didn’t directly take issue with Lyon (Butler called him a “trusted partner”) but said he may not be aware of everything the city is doing to support the shelters and prepare for contingencies.

They noted that more extensive testing has also uncovered no COVID-19 at some shelters and less than five of the population testing positive at others.

Lyon and I spoke twice over the weekend between his visits to homeless shelters to inform individuals of their test results.

The doctor said he expects Hotel 166 and A Safe Haven to fill up with homeless patients this week. That’s when it will get sticky.

Ironically, the danger from COVID-19 may be even greater for homeless people living in congregate shelter situations, where large groups sleep in the same room and share bathroom facilities, than for those living on the street.

That only reminds us the long-term solution is, as always, more truly affordable housing.

Right now, though, all we’re looking for is a way to help these folks stay alive to worry about their future.

Chicago Sun-Times: Inside the life of a homeless Chicago student in the age of the coronavirus – fear of failing, or not surviving

She’s 11 years old and one of 17,000 homeless Chicago Public Schools students. She’s pre-diabetic, asthmatic and her neighborhood has the highest number of coronavirus cases in Illinois.

Margaret Bingham and her daughter, Mariah (Photo by James Foster for the Sun-Times)

By Nader Issa

For the first three months, it was a park bench by Douglas Park on the West Side.

Then her older sister’s apartment in Homan Square.

Three different places in Englewood. One over in Gresham.

In all, Mariah Bingham has lived in 13 different places since she was born. She’s likely to be on the move again in the coming months.

She’s 11 years old and one of 17,000 homeless students at Chicago Public Schools.

LINK to the Sun-Times feature and photos

Mariah’s going into the home stretch of fifth grade having already gone to seven schools, never with a stable learning environment.

Now the coronavirus has taken over, and Mariah feels she might take a step back academically.

That’s not to mention the health concerns: Mariah and her mother are both asthmatic. Her mom is diabetic, Mariah, pre-diabetic.

“I am terrified of the coronavirus,” Mariah says, “because I love my life.”

‘I think I’m going to fall behind’

Mariah stood over a dining room table in early March before schools closed, soda in hand, showing off her neon pink poster plastered with facts about women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth. Mariah was humble, even reluctant to share, but she took pride in her work.

“She just showed she had to fight for what she wanted,” Mariah said of Truth, the figure she picked for her Black History Month project.

Things have changed in the weeks since, and Mariah and her 56-year-old mother, Margaret, have had to keep fighting.

The middle of March marked one year for her at Harvard Elementary, a school on the border of Englewood and Gresham that officials identify as needing extra support. Harvard serves almost entirely black students from low-income families.

Mariah was making progress in school, focusing on her favorite subject, math, and had developed a close-knit group of friends.

But when schools closed, Mariah was left without access to a computer or reliable internet.

“Honestly, I think I’m going to fall behind, definitely,” she said. “I’m kind of scared because if I don’t learn all that I need … it’s gonna be hard for me to get to sixth grade.”

Mariah was sent home with a homework packet when classes stopped nearly a month ago. She finished it three days later and has been bored waiting for more work. CPS is set to start widespread remote learning Monday, and her class has geared up with an online program that teaches various subjects. But Mariah has had trouble following along on her tiny cellphone screen.

“How am I supposed to learn if I can’t even do anything?” she said.

Her mother is in touch with the principal at Harvard in hopes Mariah can be provided with a laptop. CPS is working on distributing 100,000 devices over the coming days and weeks, and students experiencing homelessness are among the priorities.

But the district estimates 115,000 kids need computers and acknowledges the problem can’t be fixed overnight. So for now, a student’s grade can’t be lowered during the closures. Failed or incomplete assignments might have to be made up later.

Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Chicago looks at housing the homeless in hotels during the coronavirus crisis

One homeless man — a former college academic adviser — says the homeless community’s health problems should concern everyone: ‘We’re out there. We’re riding public transportation.’

By Mark Brown, columnist

The city of Chicago is considering making hotel rooms available to homeless people during the coronavirus crisis to try to prevent the spread of the disease among that particularly vulnerable population.

Homeless services providers were informed of the city’s emergency planning during a webinar presentation Friday conducted by officials from three city agencies.

Several California cities have taken steps toward using hotel rooms to house the homeless during the crisis.

Chicago officials are exploring the availability of other facilities that could be used temporarily to get homeless people off the street or out of crowded shelters.

Though no homeless person is known to have tested positive for the coronavirus in Chicago, officials want to identify potential isolation facilities where those individuals could be housed.

A city spokesperson said city departments are trying to identify alternative locations to provide emergency shelter for homeless individuals but did not directly address questions about using hotels.

Shelter operators and advocates who have been pressing the city to take preventive action are encouraged.

“They are very much responding to provider concerns,” said Richard Ducatenzeiler, executive director of Franciscan Outreach, one of the city’s largest providers of homeless services. “I’m very optimistic and confident the city is doing everything possible.”

Just a few days ago, social service agencies complained of a lack of preparedness.

The problem is obvious. How are homeless people supposed to safely “shelter in place” or practice “social distancing” when their only home is a group-style shelter or if they have no home at all and are living in encampments on the street?

Most homeless shelters sleep their guests congregated in large, open rooms with beds only a few feet apart to maximize capacity.

Under normal circumstances, homeless people living on the street face special challenges maintaining hygiene. The extra level of attention needed to protect against the spread of this virus is nearly impossible for them.

On top of that, many homeless people fall into the at-risk category for the coronavirus because they are older than 60 or have underlying health conditions. Ducatenzeiler said probably one-third of the people staying in Franciscan Outreach’s three shelters — which has 382 beds — could be categorized as at-risk.

Ducatenzeiler said he has urged the city to reduce the number of homeless individuals staying at his facilities, but that requires finding them another place to stay.

That’s why hotel rooms are under serious consideration.

Ronald Matthews, 65, is among the homeless people worried about contracting the virus. Matthews has been homeless since 2015 and has stayed most nights since July at Pacific Garden Mission, just south of the Loop.

But in the past two weeks, Matthews has taken to using his Social Security retirement benefits to check himself into a hotel because of his health concerns.

“Being my age, I never readily admitted being fearful of anything,” said Matthews, a former academic adviser at two local universities. “This frightens the hell out of me.”

Matthews, who was hospitalized for pneumonia Christmas Eve and once suffered a collapsed lung, said the hotel has been great but that he’s running out of money — and using up funds he hoped to put toward an apartment.

“This is not the wisest use of my funds, but, for my sanity, it’s imperative,” he said.

Matthews said the health problems of the homeless community should concern all Chicagoans.

“We’re out there. We’re riding public transportation,” he said.

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless developed a lengthy set of recommendations for government action but said the two most critical are to create isolation housing for at-risk homeless people and to “de-concentrate” the number of people in shelters.

Julie Dworkin, policy director for the coalition, said the city would need 2,800 hotel rooms to get homeless people off the street and relocate the at-risk individuals now living in shelters.

Dworkin said the coalition is encouraged by the moves the city has made in recent days, but she cautioned, “There is nothing concrete yet and no clear plans for what will happen if a single case or, in the worst-case scenario, an outbreak happens in a shelter.”

The city has to balance an extraordinary number of competing concerns, but looking out for homeless people needs to be on the urgent list.