*Thanks to Dan R. for passing this enlightening article about Covid homeless
During COVID-19, many people who were homeless lived in Chicago-area hotels.
Here's what was learned.
Charles J. Johnson
Chicago Tribune |
Apr 19, 2021 at 5:00 AM
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When COVID-19 halted the world a little more than a year ago, one group of
people appeared to be particularly vulnerable to this new, little-understood
coronavirus: the homeless.
Often suffering from poor health and packed head-to-foot in shelters - known
as congregate housing - homeless individuals were one of several groups of
-chicago-cook-20200317-cxjwmp4zyfe2lpkeuezf53f2qu-story.html> it was feared,
would be decimated by the spread of COVID-19.
While those experiencing homelessness
suffer COVID's aggressive spread initially, a silver lining has emerged out
of the deadly pandemic. Hotels, abandoned by business travelers and
tourists, were used to house people who would otherwise be sleeping in
congregate shelters or on pads arranged on the floor of a church basement.
Social service agencies, doctors and those who stayed in the hotels are now
calling it a game-changing model for how to stabilize people experiencing
homelessness and get them into permanent housing and off the street for
Equipped with a flood of private donations, CARES Act funds and FEMA
dollars, local nonprofits and governments - including Chicago and Cook
County - were able to house more than a thousand people in these hotel
Nia Tavoularis of
Connections for the Homeless in Evanston, a social service agency, calls the
practice of hotel sheltering "revolutionary . an absolutely new frontier."
Now, agencies and municipalities in Chicago and across the country are
looking to acquire hotels, some on the verge of bankruptcy after more than a
year with few paying guests, or buildings that could be converted to
A battle has erupted in Texas over a plan to convert a former hotel into
permanent supportive housing.
04/prompted-by-pandemic-some-states-buy-hotels-for-the-homeless> Oregon is
looking to spend as much as $65 million
many-oregon> to buy 20 underused hotels, enough for roughly 2,000 people. In
tels-for-homeless-people-could-get-another-influx-of-cash> the practice has
been hailed as a success in a state that constantly battles homelessness in
its major cities.
While it might seem obvious that it's preferable to sleep in comfy sheets
with cable TV than on a pad, it's not the creature comforts experts say are
revolutionary. Those in shelters often face a series of intersecting hurdles
before they can find stable employment and housing or access government
* Some shelters will take only men or women, meaning homeless families
are sometimes unable to be housed together. A daughter caring for her
elderly father or a mother caring for male teens might be separated.
* Many shelters close during the day, requiring residents to leave
during typical office hours. Try navigating the secretary of state or Cook
County court system with a social worker at 9 p.m.
* Doctors and nurses aren't easily able to treat patients, who often
suffer from diabetes, hypertension, substance abuse disorder and mental
health conditions. Patients and providers aren't able to return to the same
shelter night after night and an expensive cycle of emergency room
visit-shelter-ER is common.
* Permanent housing opportunities dry up if caseworkers can't quickly
reach their clients, extending one's stay on the streets or forcing them
into housing that might not be close to work and family support or isn't
With a hotel, notes can be slipped under doors, bureaucracies navigated,
health stabilized and families can stick together in adjoining rooms.
"A pad on the floor in a volunteer-run space is not what we would do if we
had enough resources. We see the pandemic as an opportunity to use funds to
create some permanent sites," said Kurt Runge of the Alliance to End
Homelessness in Suburban Cook County.
Qwandra Drummer, an Evanston mother who was previously homeless, recently
passed the Illinois state bar exam and has a degree in engineering from
Temple University. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)
Passing the bar, electricity be damned
Qwandra Drummer was trying to study for the Illinois bar exam in February
2020 when a worker at a shelter yanked her laptop's power cord out of the
wall. Drummer wasn't allowed to use the facility's electricity to charge
"I was begging, crying," Drummer said. "I said 'can you not understand what
I'm trying to do'? She said, 'I don't care what you're studying for, you
cannot use our electricity.' "
Drummer, raising six children, graduated from Temple University in 2002 with
a degree in engineering. She declined to share the precise circumstances
behind her situation, describing it as a cascading "series of unfortunate
events." She grew up around the now-demolished Robert Taylor homes and
Wentworth Gardens on the South Side, attending Whitney Young before Temple
and the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota.
She jokes about failing
0or%20her%20conduct.> the "foreseeability test" she learned about in law
As COVID-19 began to creep into Chicago, she grew scared for her family and
bought a tent, a radio and other camping supplies, fearing they would have
to live outside. She still has the D batteries she stocked up on.
Instead, Drummer was placed at the Hilton Garden Inn and the Orrington in
Evanston, where her kids were able to e-learn in a space with two bathrooms,
two bedrooms and a living room. Meals from local restaurants were delivered
"with a smile" three times a day, and Connections staff brought clothes,
toiletries and games for the kids. One of Drummer's children is autistic and
blankets help. They found an extra thick one for her.
The kids weren't the only ones studying and taking tests online. Drummer had
plenty of electricity for bar exam prep. She passed and was admitted in
January, according to the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.
Qwandra Drummer holds her law license April 9, 2021, in Evanston. (John J.
Kim / Chicago Tribune)
Her example is an outlier - most in homeless shelters are not on the verge
of being licensed attorneys - but the example is instructive of the
superiority of the hotel system, advocates say. A family was able to stay
together. Service providers were able to quickly and diligently meet
individual health needs. And the dignity of a warm bed and some privacy put
a bounce in the family matriarch, who gained a major credential - tough even
for the most privileged - she can now use in her job hunt.
"I stayed in all of the (other shelters)," Drummer said. "I couldn't sleep.
I'd be with my cellphone, using the light to study, unable to sleep. ...
They're doing the best they can, but the one that gave me the most love,
care and attention was Connections."
After a stay from April to August, Drummer and family moved into market-rate
Runge estimates about 700 people sheltered in hotels throughout suburban
Cook County at the height of the pandemic.
Through the end of 2020, Connections for the Homeless housed 350 people, 70
of whom were kids, in hotel operations. They recorded only 10 COVID-19
cases, with no participant-to-staff transmission, Tavoularis said. The
Margarita Inn in Evanston also enthusiastically took clients. About 80 are
still being sheltered.
"Our ability to say 'yes' was a totally different way of doing business. ...
This is so much better than having people in the basement of the church from
7 p.m. to 7 a.m.," Tavoularis said.
The doctor who moved in
Dr. Thomas Huggett didn't just shelter his patients in a hotel.
-20200511-q3rxmmzarvbwbdkprhxjhsfwjm-story.html> He moved in himself.
Huggett is a physician with Lawndale Christian Health Center, a medical
services agency. When COVID-19 hit, he saw it spread nearly unchecked: In
one congregate shelter, where all residents were tested, 65% came back
The city of Chicago managed to secure rooms at Hotel One Sixty-Six in the
luxe Gold Coast (it's now open under a new name).
Huggett then started a roadshow of sorts across the city, trying to take the
most medically vulnerable homeless out of shelters and convince them to move
to an unfamiliar hotel downtown.
"To tell you the truth, it was a little bit a part of our sales pitch,"
Huggett said of his decision to move in. "People thought, 'If this white
dude, this white doctor is staying there, then it'll probably be good.' It
was my ace card," he said, smiling wryly.
Thirty-five medical practitioners and staff worked with Huggett treating
patients seven days a week at the hotel, and Huggett said they were able to
much more effectively manage the chronic conditions they often see: high
blood pressure, diabetes and HIV. If patients had mental health conditions
or drug addictions that couldn't be managed in the hotel, they could
efficiently place them in inpatient care.
Dr. Thomas Huggett on May 4, 2020, at Hotel One Sixty-Six, where Huggett
lived temporarily while treating patients housed at the Gold Coast hotel.
(Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)
At its peak, early in the pandemic, Hotel One Sixty-Six housed 172 people
experiencing homelessness, according to Huggett. In the early days of the
pandemic, 10 people living there went to the hospital with COVID-19, with
eight landing in the ICU. Six were intubated.
rcent-more-likely-die-covid?utm_id=25268&sfmc_id=2158313> None died.
Huggett lived at the hotel from April to September, with trips home to wash
The hotel system, which allowed regular testing and monitoring of patients,
saved lives, Huggett said. On top of that, more than half of those in the
hotel were able to get access to housing, he said.
Betty Bogg, executive director of Connections, also moved into the hotels
where clients were staying.
The downsides, good governance and what comes after a revolution
If "just put the homeless in hotels then" seems like the obvious solution to
one of society's most persistent social problems, it's not that simple.
In the first place, the "hotel revolution" would not have been possible
without the pandemic. The rooms would not have been so available, nor would
the public funds to pay for them, and hoteliers wouldn't have had the
financial incentive to take in those experiencing homelessness.
In Chicago, occupancy rates at hotels in February 2021 stood at 20%, down
from nearly 60% at the same time last year as coronavirus was beginning to
ramp up, according to STR, a hotel data and research firm. At least 20
downtown hotels suspended operations, rather than try to stay open with
travel virtually shut down.
The Margarita European Inn in Evanston, which housed homeless families, is
shown April 9, 2021. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)
Michael Jacobson, president and CEO of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging
Association, said he's quite proud of the work hotels did amid the crisis,
sheltering all kinds of people including first responders and essential
workers. He stressed the rates hotels charged service agencies and
governments weren't profitable, but they helped to stem heavy losses.
"This industry often steps up and helps communities. Did any hotel make
money off of it? Absolutely not," Jacobson said.
Most of the room services provided to otherwise homeless guests didn't come
from hotel staff, who aren't trained or equipped to deal with the myriad
issues operating a shelter presents. Some hotel worker union contracts don't
require the staff to work if the hotel is being operated as a crisis
Even the buildings themselves aren't perfectly equipped. For example, most
hotels are smoke-free now, by far the preference of most guests. Many people
in shelters smoke. Dr. Huggett handed out nicotine patches before a system
of day passes and smoke breaks could be worked out safely.
hotels fill back up - Jacobson says the industry isn't expecting a return to
pre-pandemic profitability before 2024 - some propose acquiring hotels
that closed, or that owners are looking to sell, and convert them intopermanent shelters, complete with a smoking area, medical facilities and