As we near two full years of the COVID-19 pandemic, new challenges continue to arise for vulnerable groups in Chicago’s neighboring counties, leading to significant increases in local shelter use.
Shelter Use Rises
Shelters like Aurora’s Hesed House had already seen increases in interim housing use throughout the pandemic, but Executive Director Joe Jackson attributes the latest increases to the expiration of Illinois’ eviction moratorium in early October.
“Our adult shelters, that population went up by I think about 50 to 60% over that time, and then our family shelter population more than doubled,” Jackson said.
Use of the shelter’s homeless prevention program has also increased, even before the moratorium was lifted.
“That program’s gone through the roof,” Jackson said. “It’s more than tripled, the number of individuals and families who we’ve helped avoid homelessness and experience all that trauma that comes with it, just over this past year.”
Changes made to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, like increased cleaning practices and vaccines available on site, have helped to keep services running. And social distancing strategies have shown benefits even beyond the pandemic.
DuPagePads, based in Wheaton, has switched to a hotel-based model to help with social distancing. Since the switch, the shelter has seen an 80% decrease in mental health incidents, a 75% decrease in physical health incidents, and a 500% increase in case management utilization.
“When they are not trying to figure out how to get where they need to sleep the next night, oftentimes in difficult temperatures, they can focus on getting closer toward ending their homelessness,” DuPagePads CEO and President April Redzic said.
DuPagePads is raising funds to invest in a hotel-based setup long-term. The shelter wants to purchase a 130-room hotel in Downers Grove to transform into its next interim housing center. The cost to purchase and open the hotel is $7.5 million, but after community donations and a $5 million grant from the DuPage County Board, the shelter is just under $1 million away from its goal.
Hesed House has seen benefits from social distancing measures as well. It converted a 12,000 square foot warehouse space into a distanced shelter space and is raising funds to convert another 15,000 square feet in the same space for the same purpose.
“That’s kind of the next iteration of sheltering in general,” Jackson said. “Looking at non-congregate elements so people have more individualized spaces that are their own, as opposed to a massive open space with bunks and things like that.”
One beacon of hope through the pandemic has been watching people find new ways to help. Staff, community members, and local groups have adapted to provide food in line with COVID-19 safety guidelines, start fundraisers and drives to help shelters, and donate needed items through the pandemic.
Helping Through Winter
Those items can be especially helpful during these coldest months of the year. Redzic had some extra advice to help people as temperatures drop dangerously low this winter.
“We encourage people that you take care of your emergency situation first, get inside, and then give us a call,” she said. “Or if it’s you and you’re an outside person, encourage that person to go inside and then give Pads a call and let us know where that person is.”
Those in need can reach DuPagePads at (866) 682 3846 ext. 2275. Or for anyone with an immediate need to get out of the elements, the Aurora Transportation Center is open 24/7 as a warming center.
And Jackson had his own advice he said is true any time of year.
“Respect the humanity of people experiencing homelessness. I mean, they’re people just like you and I that just happen to be experiencing homelessness. And so don’t judge, just seek to help,” he said.
Naperville News 17’s Casey Flanagan reports.
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