As libraries, restaurants and public buildings have closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, people experiencing homelessness have increasingly fewer places to seek shelter and safety. In the western suburbs, nonprofit agencies Housing Forward and BEDS Plus are opening emergency shelters to shield their clients during the ever-evolving coronavirus epidemic.
“People who are homeless are among the most vulnerable population,” said Housing Forward Director of Development and Communications Erik Johnson. “People at great risk of homelessness are equally as vulnerable.”
To prevent contracting and spreading the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has directed people to practice social distancing and self-isolation — nearly impossible to do without a stable living situation.
“It’s critically important we respond effectively to this and figure out the ways we safeguard everyone’s protection to the maximum of our capacity,” said Johnson.
Housing Forward operates a schedule of nightly shelters at rotating locations, serving people in Oak Park, Forest Park, Berwyn and Maywood. The current situation has prompted the program to come up with a more permanent alternative.
“One of our shelter partners has generously opened up their location 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Johnson.
Synagogue and shelter partner Oak Park Temple B’nai Abraham Zion, 1235 N. Harlem Ave., will house Housing Forward clients starting March 17 and effective until March 30.
“We’re thrilled that Oak Park Temple is working with us to provide shelter both daytime and nighttime,” Johnson said.
Oak Park Temple has enough space to give clients a wide berth and prevent them from coming too close into contact with each other.
“It allows us greater flexibility to provide the proper amount of social-distancing that’s being recommended by the CDC,” Johnson said. “We’re fortunate that the temple has two floors so that we are able to follow [Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s] guidelines of no more than 50 people in a room.”
For at least the next two weeks, all Housing Forward shelter operations will occur at Oak Park Temple.
“For Oak Park Temple to be able to step up in this way, in the middle of this pandemic, allows us to take the next steps we feel are so vitally important to meet the needs of our clients,” Johnson said. “We have immense gratitude for them.”
As of March 18, BEDS Plus will also consolidate its shelter operations to one location.
“At this time, we are not publicly disclosing the location of our consolidated shelter site. Per CDC guidelines, we cannot accommodate more than 50 clients and our current system capacity already is at 75 beds per night,” said BEDS Plus Social Media Specialist Valerie Vedral.
BEDS Plus serves Brookfield, La Grange and Western Springs among many other communities in the south and west suburbs.
According to Vedral, BEDS Plus has given elderly and immune-compromised clients motel vouchers.
“BEDS is paying the cost of a month-long stay at motels for our most vulnerable clients and families to reduce our shelter population as much as we can,” she said.
Staff is regularly checking in on those housed clients to ensure they have medical supplies and food. They have also referred clients experiencing COVID-19 symptoms to medical care.
“Diverting those clients will allow us to accommodate no more than 50 clients at our consolidated shelter site, which is spacious enough to allow for appropriate social distancing during a night of shelter,” said Vedral.
Clients experiencing COVID-19 symptoms have been referred to medical care.
“BEDS also has tapped into a $100,000 reserve fund to pay for temporary housing and other needs during this coronavirus pandemic,” she said.
BEDS Plus cannot accept new clients until space becomes available. Potential new clients must have documentation proving they have not been infected.
Both Housing Forward and BEDS Plus are utilizing the guidelines issued for shelters by the CDC and U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to safely address COVID-19.
BEDS Plus is encouraging those who need help to call 708-354-0858 instead of showing up at one of its day centers. People interested in volunteering should also contact that number.
As new information becomes available, Housing Forward and BEDS Plus will update their respective Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and websites.
Housing Forward clients can also call 1-888-338-1744. Those who would like to volunteer with Housing Forward should call its main telephone number: 708-338-1724.
“It is our mission and our moral obligation to respond as vigorously as we can, while at the same time safeguarding the safety and protection of not only our clients, but our staff and volunteers,” Johnson said.
Housing Forward is anticipating a greater need for volunteers and welcomes healthy people to get involved.
“We do need help,” said Johnson. “And we are so grateful for people who are willing to help us during this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.”