Connections staff member Gerald Nelson prepares to deliver food room service style to participant sheltering at the hotel. Photo from Connections for the Homeless

Moving nearly 200 homeless people into hotels to get them out of the way of an approaching pandemic is bound to involve details that could easily be overlooked.

“Here’s something to think about: What do you do about all these peoples’ mail?” asked Nia Tavoularis, the Director of Development for Connections for the Homeless. “We have five filing cabinets full of mail that we get for participants all the time. And so part of what we had to figure out is, ‘How are we getting and distributing mail for all of these people?’”

“Then, just imagine, ‘Oh, what are they going to drink? What are they going to eat off of? Who’s going to pick up the trash? Where is their trash going to go?””

The organization, whose mission is to end homelessness “one person at a time,” had already begun moving people into a second Evanston hotel when the City entered talks with them, saying the City would be willing to cover some of the housing costs dating back to March 27.

The City picked up costs for roughly 64 hotel rooms at discounted prices at two local hotels. Hotel stays for the homeless are to continue for the duration of Governor’s stay-at-home order, currently May 31, officials said.

An arrangement for 40 rooms in a third hotel is expected to relieve the hotel of some of the $500,000 in back taxes it owes the City, according to a tax lien filed with the Cook County Recorder of Deeds earlier this year.

Using the money from the City’s Affordable Housing fund, Evanston officials previously sought approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide non-congregate housing for homeless populations, and will seek reimbursement for 75% of the expenses, Sarah Flax, the City’s Housing and Grants Administrator, reported in a memo at the May 11 City Council meeting.

Meanwhile, Connections officials estimate the organization has spent at least $1 million in the bold move into the hotels, including footing the costs of more than 50 hotel rooms beyond those picked up by the City. The organization estimates spending $35,000 a week in hotel costs during the pandemic period, along with  $16,000-$20,000 in meals and additional wages of nearly $30,000 a week.

The organization has drawn key support from the Evanston Community Foundation and individual donors and families, Ms. Tavoularis said. The Evanston Community Foundation recently contributed $150,000 from its Rapid Response Fund to help support Connections, including hiring a housing locator to find housing for those in hotels in the program’s next phase, said Ms. Tavoularis.

In March, Connections for the Homeless officials raised concerns about the vulnerability of the City’s homeless population as  places homeless people frequented, including the Evanston Public Library and local restaurants, began closing because of social distancing concerns.

A Public Health Crisis

The organization was still scrambling for a place to house homeless after the Governor’s order to shelter in place came down on March 21.

A log entry on the organization’s web entry the day before noted that Connections Advocacy Manager Sue Loellbach “was researching local motel options for our most vulnerable participants,” as the organization was “waiting for City support.”

“There was this moment of a public health crisis,” Ms. Tavoularis said, “when it became about keeping housed people healthy and safe from Coronavirus. We were able to kind of muster up the energy in the community to say … housing all the homeless people, at least temporarily, not only helps the homeless people, but also helps the house people stay safe. And so there were a lot of forces that came to play that allowed us to make that happen, including having empty hotel rooms.”

“I think in normal circumstances they [the hotel operators] would not have had the time or energy to even really think about doing this,” she said about the arrangement. “But there is now a kind of a moment that we’ve had with these hotel operators, that although it hasn’t always been perfect – and they will tell you it has not been perfect at all – it has done a great service in the community as far as helping people get stabilized.”

Finding lodging space was just one part of it. Connections established partnerships with multiple local restaurants to purchase three meals a day for each person, adding up to a total of close to 600 meals served per day, Ms. Tavoularis said.

 “All the meals alone have to be individually packaged and prepared,” she said. “We use volunteers to go to the restaurants, pick up the meals, and then deliver them to our staff at two or three different locations.”

Some of the volunteers came through the City’s “Covid-19 Response” Volunteer Portal, some were from Evanston, and some from other parts of the North Shore, said Ms. Tavoularis.

Staff members then delivered the meals room-style fashion to residents sheltering-in-place at the hotels. A nurse and mental health expert are among the staff Connections has on site, visiting all three locations throughout the week.

Once the governor’s order is lifted, “Our goal is to get people matched into apartments – apartments that they can afford, and apartments that are the right match for them,” Ms. Tavoularis said. “And that’s complicated because every one of these people has a different circumstance.”

Waiting to Be Placed

Offering an example, she said, “Let’s take the senior citizen who we have in a hotel who is homeless and was riding the Purple Line El train before the pandemic came and the move to the hotels.

“The woman who is undergoing chemotherapy was due to go into surgery last week, but the procedure was cancelled, because her condition hadn’t met the pre-surgery requirements, Ms. Tavoularis said.

In the meantime, “her doctor sent a lift to pick her up at the hotel to make her chemo appointment,” she said. “We’re working as hard as we can to get her placed into viable housing.”

Another woman with six children had just finished her law degree, said Ms. Tavoularis. “She’s a survivor of domestic violence – she fled with her children, came to us. She’s trying to take [the bar exam], which of course [because of the pandemic] was cancelled. She’s got kids and living in a hotel. We’re working on trying to get her in an apartment.”

The organization has hired additional staff to identify and advocate these people and support the process of getting them into permanent housing, “but affordability is the greatest obstacle,” she acknowledged.

Making use of a coordinated entry system for homeless persons, “we are working on matching people and accessing more housing choice vouchers [formerly known as Section 8], trying to identify landlords from that,” she said. “And we are trying to access market rate housing by advocating for folks who have poor credit history, an eviction on their records, or a criminal record.

“What we want to avoid is putting people back on the streets,” she said. “We are not going to put that woman [on the Purple Line] back on the train or any one of the people we’re serving [back on the streets] without a solution for them.”

This article was updated on May 20 to protect the privacy of certain homeless people.