‘It’s hard to think of a silver lining in this global disaster,” says Lynda Schueler, for 22 years the executive director of Housing Forward. “But this has pushed us to a limit I never thought I’d see.”
The limit was the immediate and stunning realization that in the COVID-19 pandemic, with an airborne virus, that a rotating series of overnight homeless shelters in church basements had to be shut down and replaced with something else entirely. Those shelters had been Housing Forward’s model for decades, the pride of welcoming congregations, the shared work of hundreds of volunteers.
The nonprofit had rethought and expanded its mission over the past decade layering on a series of case management and support services, adding specialized housing options, negotiating apartment leases intended to transition people from the shelter into more permanent housing.
But since the early days when it was called West Suburban PADS, the foundation of that more ambitious mission was always the overnight shelters – 12-hours a day, nine months of the year, with dinner and breakfast served up by volunteers.
But with COVID-19 all too real by March, Housing Forward pivoted finding empty hotel rooms in Oak Park and nearby for its clients. That was the start of the broader reimagining of its services and quick conclusion that it would never go back to its church shelter model.
“In March, no one had a plan. There was no off the shelf solution. It was from the hip decision-making. There was a bit of panic,” says Schueler. “Keep everyone safe. That’s what we knew. Staff. Clients. Volunteers.”
In a pandemic hotel rooms were readily available and the model solved so many intractable problems. They provided 24-hour housing for clients. They no longer needed to exit a shelter in the early winter mornings and then bounce from the library to a Starbucks to the el to stay warm all day long.
“Hotel room space provided so many solutions,” says Schueler. “Our population is already traumatized by being homeless. The hotel rooms offer our clients their own feeling of stability. It allows them to really focus on their goals. They have a place to keep their belongings and not have to stuff them behind bushes. It allows them and us to see beyond their immediate crisis.”
This new model, heavily underwritten with federal dollars from the CARES act and much of it funneled through the village of Oak Park, resulted in the bold step of Housing Forward signing a one-year lease for the all the rooms at the pandemic shuttered Write Inn on Oak Park Avenue.
“It’s a huge, huge deal,” says Schueler. And it was reinforced in August when the Housing Forward board voted to adopt the 24/7 interim housing model as its principal means of housing the homeless.
Can it be sustained? Schueler says there “is a big question mark.” And that is whether the federal government chooses to support this model of care for the homeless, a model focused on active and timely transition into work and independence.
“This year we have learned a lot. Like wow. A lot,” says Schueler. “What we are doing is really making a difference.”