To Fight Coronavirus, Chicago Moved Homeless Residents into a Hotel. Now What?
Advocates hunt to find permanent housing after a temporary solution; ‘I’m no closer to finding a place than I was four months ago,’ says one resident of Hotel 166.
In early April, Wayne Smith was the second person to move into Hotel 166, a haven set up to protect the most vulnerable in city homeless shelters from the ravages of the coronavirus.
The 58-year-old might be one of the last to move out when the hotel wraps up its mission on Labor Day. The goal now is to get permanent housing for its nearly 100 remaining residents. Despite having a housing voucher worth $1,100 a month for an apartment in suburban Cook County, Mr. Smith has been unable to find one because his credit score is too low.
Cities like Chicago that moved homeless people out of crowded shelters due to the coronavirus are now struggling with how to get those people into permanent housing. They are coming up against the same challenges homeless people have long-faced: criminal histories, mental illness, and the wherewithal to stick through lengthy application processes that can require extensive documentation.
Now, caseworkers at the hotel, set up by the city with federal funds earmarked for coronavirus aid, are trying to get Mr. Smith into another program, but say they might be running out of time.
“I’m no closer to finding a place than I was four months ago,” said Mr. Smith, who has been in the hotel since April 2 and recently went back to work assembling meals at a meal-kit company. “All I can do is pray.”
In the spring as the virus spread, cities rushed to revamp large shelters that were emerging as hotbeds of infection. Homeless people often were sleeping in cavernous rooms filled with bunks stacked three high and using communal bathrooms. Many shelters have since thinned out their populations and created ways to allow social distancing.
Some cities turned to hotels—which often had empty rooms as people traveled less—as a temporary solution, said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Now, they are looking for permanent answers.
Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that $600 million—mostly federal coronavirus aid money—would be available in grants to localities interested in purchasing hotels and converting them into apartments. In Connecticut, where about 1,200 homeless people were in hotels, the state in June said it planned to find homes for 1,800 by fall, using $15 million in federal stimulus aid. The state has since found apartments for 422 families, a housing department spokesman said.
Some cities, including New York and San Francisco, are seeing a surge of homeless people on the street, as shelters have been thinned and some homeless people fear going back to them because of the coronavirus.
Overall, homelessness has been reduced over the past 15 years, Mr. Berg said, and the coronavirus has actually galvanized support for tackling the issue. Mr. Berg estimates that providing rental assistance to everyone who qualifies in the U.S. would cost about $40 billion to $50 billion, around 6% of what was spent on Medicare in 2019.
“This is not at all an unsolvable problem,” he said.
In Chicago, Mr. Smith is among 259 people who have stayed at the former boutique hotel, just steps from the fancy shops on Michigan Avenue.