March 22 marks the anniversary of Housing Forward’s two-year journey to transform our agency’s crisis-response system during the COVID-19 pandemic. As our community was digesting the “shelter-in-place” order, we quickly realized that our little corner of the world was about to change drastically. That Sunday was filled with anxiety for staff and clients alike, as we secured hotel rooms for 65 adults and children who had been staying at Oak Park Temple where we established a 24/7 shelter just six days prior.

Day-by-day we worked through the logistics of serving clients now residing in three hotels across three communities. Organizing meals and their delivery, bulk purchases of detergent pods and rolls of quarters, and simply figuring out how to keep people safe were daily concerns. We had no idea what lay ahead, how we would fund all these new expenses, or how long this crisis mode would last.

What we did have was an unwavering commitment to our mission, our faithful volunteers and supporters, and very resilient clients. We also recognized that homelessness itself was a public health crisis. We had forged a relationship with Cook County Health in recent years, recognizing the intersection of health and housing. And in September 2019, just six months prior to the pandemic’s start, we launched Sojourner House, suburban Cook County’s first medical respite program, in partnership with MacNeal Hospital/Loyola Medicine. We knew the availability of temporary-crisis housing for those with complex medical conditions, who would be especially vulnerable to COVID, would be safer.

As the pandemic showed no signs of resolution, we began to develop an alternative approach. In October 2020, we took bold steps to lease the Write Inn Hotel in Oak Park and convert our longstanding rotating congregate shelter program into a new Interim Housing Program. This 24-hour day program model for individuals and families experiencing homelessness focuses on assisting clients in making connections to housing resources and ending their homelessness as soon as possible. In the first year of this program, we assisted 297 people experiencing homelessness in our various Interim Housing facilities — Sojourner House, Ohana House (for families), and the Write Inn. The outcome of their stay? Eighty percent of those completing the program exited to a permanent housing destination. The model works.

Throughout our response to this extraordinary crisis, the compassionate reaction of the community was foundational to our success. The generosity of hundreds of volunteers and donors who gave their time and resources is truly inspiring.

It has been said that “the greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.” These words resound deeply when I look back on the past two years, as hundreds of community members joined together to help Housing Forward respond to our neighbors experiencing a housing crisis who were incredibly vulnerable to the pandemic. We are humbled and honored to benefit from the altruistic spirit of our supporters.

With immense gratitude.

Lynda Schueler is executive director of Housing Forward, which provides shelter and access to housing for the homeless in the Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park area.

Join the discussion on social media!