“How do you shelter in place,” asked Erik Johnson, Housing Forward’s director of development and communications, “when you have no home?”

Johnson’s question revealed the enormity of the challenge confronting his agency’s work with the homeless during this COVID-19 crisis while perhaps at the same time giving some perspective to those of us who are chafing at being stuck at home.

The challenge

Johnson recounted the two-month story of how Housing Forward has had to scramble to adapt to rapidly changing events. After Gov. Pritzker issued his stay-at-home order in March, Housing Forward quickly changed the way it provides housing to the homeless from a rotating model with a different church hosting the PADS shelter each night of the week to a centralized 24/7 shelter at Oak Park Temple.

Then when an employee tested positive for COVID-19, Housing Forward closed the centralized location after only six days and in a couple days transitioned 64 clients from the congregate shelter to rooms for individuals and couples at three hotels and other temporary accommodations. The list of clients being served in that way has grown to 110.

The individuals being temporarily housed range in age from newly born to 64. One-third have underlying medical conditions or are disabled.

Then came the challenge of feeding over 100 people three meals a day, with the old model of congregations serving meals to everyone at the same time in one of the rotating shelter sites no longer workable.

What Housing Forward did was quickly organize a daily meal delivery program with the help of caterers volunteer meal groups and local restaurants.

Enid Johnson, Housing Forward’s Volunteer and Community Outreach coordinator, said this put a lot of stress on her organization.

“This represents a big shift in our service model, by providing temporary individual accommodations to 110 individuals and ensuring they receive three nutritious meals a day. To accommodate these shifts, we have redeployed some of our staff. We have also redeployed our incredible volunteer corps to help provide breakfasts and lunches, as well as deliver meals on the weekend. We have learned to pivot quickly in order to meet the needs of those we serve.”

Toward the end of April, she sent out a letter that said, “With the extension of the Illinois Shelter-in-Place Order through May 31, we are planning that our current temporary accommodations will continue throughout May — which means we’ll be providing more than 3,100 nights of shelter and nearly 10,000 more meals.”

In perhaps the understatement of the year, Erik Johnson said, “Over the past six weeks, our resources have been stretched.”

The response

After detailing the immensity of the need, Erik listed ways Proviso Township residents can help, one of which is to prepare bag breakfasts and lunches.

Realizing that asking a family or a small church group to make 110 sack lunches — each with a sandwich (including protein), chips, fruit, or a sweet and a beverage in a bag or zip-lock and labeled with the date delivered to Housing Forward — is asking a lot of its volunteers, the nonprofit broke up each breakfast and lunch commitment into increments of 30. The sets of 30 bag lunches or bag breakfasts, according to Enid’s letter, are to be delivered to Housing Forward’s Maywood location at 1851 S. Ninth Ave. Housing Forward staff then delivers them to each client.

“If able,” wrote Enid, “we are asking if anyone is willing to help us prepare breakfast, lunch or dinner during this month, please go to our website and sign up: https://www.housingforward.org/get-involved.”

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...