After a staff member tested positive for COVID-19, Housing Forward successfully moved 64 people experiencing homelessness out of the 24-hour emergency shelter located inside Oak Park Temple, 1234 N. Harlem Ave., and into individual accommodation. 

“We always knew even when we made the decision to centralize the rotating shelter and the support center services at Oak Park Temple, that it was not a model we could sustain long term,” said Erik Johnson, Housing Forward director of communications and development. “Yet it effectively responded to the pressing needs that our clients were experiencing in that it gave more ability to social distance and more importantly shelter in place, which if you’re homeless, you cannot shelter in place.”

Housing Forward, an organization dedicated to combatting homelessness, received notification late in the day on Saturday, March 21, that a member of its staff tested positively. That particular staff member had done work at the shelter just two days prior to the diagnosis.

“We obviously put a response plan together immediately,” Johnson said. Housing Forward included the Oak Park Department of Public Health and the Cook County Department of Public Health in the development of the plan.

“After processing all the variables, we felt that moving clients from a group setting to individual accommodations was the best solution,” Johnson said.

In a turnaround of about 28 hours from the time they received notice, Housing Forward finished moving people into new housing the evening of Sunday, March 22.  New accommodations include vacant apartments donated to Housing Forward by local landlords. Housing Forward also got support needed to put clients up in hotel rooms. 

“It was a true community effort to make this happen,” said Johnson.

According to Johnson, Housing Forward program team is working to communicate with everyone who may have come into close contact with the afflicted staff member, so that they may seek medical attention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines close contact as being within six feet or less of an individual diagnosed with COVID-19.

Housing Forward normally operates rotating nightly shelters out of alternating locations. That system has temporarily shut down due to COVID-19 health concerns. According to Johnson, Housing Forward does not know when the organization will return to the rotational shelter model. Nor does the organization know how long individual accommodations for its clients will continue.

“We don’t have a black and white answer on that,” Johnson said. “Our initial period of time is for 14 days. We have every thought that that might be longer.”

Housing Forward has funding coming in from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The organization may also possibly receive funding from other public sources, according to Johnson.

“What we believe is coming in and what we know is coming in allowed us to make the commitment,” Johnson said. “Keep in mind this was in a 28-hour period, so we had to move nimbly, but also responsibly.”

Housing Forward has already begun strategizing for the immediate future should another positive diagnosis happen.

According to Johnson, the staff member who tested positive has been following the advice of medical care professionals. 

“Our staff member is constantly in all our board and staff’s thoughts,” he said. 

Johnson said the staff member has been in touch with Housing Forward, helping to identify the people with whom they were in close contact.

Housing Forward has a registered nursing professional on staff, as well as a volunteer nursing professional.

“We have been screening our clients daily for any symptoms,” said Johnson, for the safety of individual clients, the entire client population and that of staff and volunteers.

Housing Forward is also asking people over the age of 60 to not volunteer as a precaution. The organization is also asking volunteers who are feeling poorly to stay home.

“We would much rather have to find another volunteer or rework our work schedule than to even think about a risky situation,” Johnson said.

Due to public health guidelines, Housing Forward has reached capacity and cannot take on any new clients. People seeking shelter should call Suburban Cook County Homeless Prevention Call Center at 877-426-6515.

Housing Forward is actively looking for other resources to keep people experiencing homeless safely off the streets and away from COVID-19.


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