During pandemic, swanky Chicago hotel has become a haven for people living on the street, others at risk
AP

During pandemic, swanky Chicago hotel has become a haven for people living on the street, others at risk

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CHICAGO - Joeal Hamlin eased himself into a plank position on the carpet, resting the weight of his body on his forearms, elbows and toes. Sweat dampened his cropped gray hair.

His goal was 125 pushups, done in bunches of 25. Up, down. Up, down. Next were 75 squats atop the chair in his hotel room downtown. Up, down. Up, down.

The 66-year-old couldn't do this just a month ago. He believed he was going to die when he overdosed on drugs in March. He recovered but became homeless, bouncing around friends' houses before showing up with a cart of belongings at a West Side shelter.

In mid-April, Hamlin was offered a ninth-story room inside the pricey Hotel One Sixty-Six Magnificent Mile, where the Lawndale Christian Health Center oversees a makeshift isolation facility for people who are homeless. Hamlin has gained a needed 20 pounds since moving in. During smoke breaks on the rooftop, he enjoys views of the skyline while chatting with new friends - from 6 feet away.

"I actually was leading to a depression, anxiety," Hamlin said. "I felt I could do better for myself, but I couldn't do it by myself. With the help of Lawndale Christian Health, I'm not by myself anymore."

Hamlin's new living quarters are part of the city's effort to shelter those who have nowhere to go as the death toll from COVID-19 in Illinois tops 3,000. The city has rented nearly 400 rooms in two downtown hotels to isolate people considered to be at high-risk during the pandemic.

To date, 251 people experiencing homelessness have stayed in the isolation and quarantine hotel rooms and given free meals, with 152 guests still in the hotel. It's an evolving experiment that Thomas Huggett - lead doctor of the Lawndale Christian Health Center's medical team at Hotel One Sixty-Six - hopes will transform how society cares for such people.

"There are stay-at-home orders," Huggett said. "What does that actually mean for people who don't have a home? From our angle, housing is health care. If we can really learn through these liminal times, then perhaps we can make some long-lasting, positive changes."

Hamlin had never been homeless before. He was living in his parents' basement in Austin when he overdosed on heroin laced with the powerful painkiller fentanyl in March. "I thought it was the end of my time," he said.

He recovered, but his mother and father, both 84, contracted coronavirus, so he couldn't go back home after his discharge.

After making his way to a Salvation Army shelter operated by the city, Hamlin said he found social distancing to be nearly impossible and panicked as people waited for food without masks, coughing and sometimes vomiting. When a staff member at Lawndale Christian Health Center informed him he was on a list of seniors eligible to stay at Hotel One Sixty-Six, he eagerly awaited the bus to downtown.

"I had panicked," Hamlin said. "I was almost ready to stay on the streets. But by the grace of God, Lawndale Christian Health came to my rescue."

Not everyone in shelters is able to move into a hotel room. The Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, which provides funding for about 3,000 of the city's 4,000 shelter beds, works with the city's Department of Public Health to determine if a person needs isolation.

At first, DFSS moved only healthy people younger than 60 to emergency locations at the YMCA or Salvation Army, to "decompress" the shelters. As the city started testing more - 1,153 residents and staff as of May 1 - people with COVID-19 who had mild to no symptoms were kept isolated at shelters. So far, the city has conducted testing at 14 shelters, and 302 people have tested positive, according to DFSS spokeswoman Quenjana Olayeni.

Brian Henry said he's trying to stay out of the shelters, preferring Airbnbs for now. He believes empty hotel rooms should be made more widely available, arguing that the process to get into them is too restrictive to effectively contain the virus.

"Do I have to go to the hospital and get diagnosed with COVID-19 first?" said Henry, who said that as his savings dwindle, he's considering renting a room with others, though he is nervous about contracting the virus. "It seems like (the hotel rooms) is just to make people think they were helping and they really weren't."

In a statement, the city said that its response to the pandemic "has been able to further ensure every resident - regardless of status or where they live - are (sic) able to obtain the care and refuge needed to prevent the spread of this disease and keep every Chicagoan safe and secure."

Huggett, the doctor from Lawndale Christian Health Center, is staying on the 28th floor of Hotel One Sixty-Six, in a room that also serves as a medical supply closet. He wakes up about 5 a.m. each day with suitcases of medications feet from his bed. Also vitamins, nicotine patches, pillboxes, Vaseline, cough drops, epinephrine, Narcan and other necessities.

Usually Huggett spends the morning touring shelters to find potential guests for the hotel program. Then he tends to the patients assigned to him, taking their temperature and pulse. Some of the hotel guests are already familiar to him because he's been working with the homeless for more than two decades.

Lawndale Christian Health Center has treated 231 people at Hotel One Sixty-Six, as of Thursday, Huggett said. The space was originally imagined as a place for homeless people with coronavirus symptoms, but the medical team over the last weeks has focused its efforts on prevention, recruiting as many high-risk people to stay at the hotel as possible.

Since the beginning of the program, 66 guests at the hotel have tested positive, though there were only five current COVID-19 cases as of Thursday, Huggett said. Eighteen guests have been transported to the hospital.

"Our job now is really to shield high-risk persons experiencing homelessness so they don't get coronavirus," Huggett said. "We've been able to get them out of the shelters before they were infected."

For Huggett, the biggest challenge lies ahead. Will these guests be able to secure housing? Or will they have to return to the shelters, uncertain like the rest of the country whether it's safe to go back to the way things were?

As a physician working with the homeless, Huggett has seen just how intertwined housing and health are. From 2003 to 2006, researchers followed 400 homeless adults who had been taken to two Chicago hospitals, most of them for chronic illnesses. Half of them were offered transitional housing upon discharge, and they went on to experience 29% fewer hospitalizations.

That's why Lawndale Christian Health Center is helping guests find permanent housing. Hamlin is corresponding with the Chicago Coordinated Entry System to see if he can be moved up the waiting list for a Section 8 housing subsidy.

"We just feel like people should be in their own home," Huggett said. "Let's say the hotel shuts down and the folks here all go back to shelters. Well, what if there's another coronavirus blip in the fall?"

That question is being asked across the country as the emergency public health response is challenging how people see homelessness.

"This crisis really is pushing the whole system to do something that a couple of weeks ago they'd have said there's no way," said Nia Tavoularis, director of development at Connections for the Homeless, which has relocated 194 homeless residents to two hotels in the northern suburbs. "People are overwhelmed by the amount that it looks like it's gonna cost to end homelessness, but the truth is we pay for that over and over again in how other systems end up failing."

Chicago's DFSS says it is looking for ways to place those hit hardest by the coronavirus into permanent housing, though advocates say the city can start now by diverting hotel funds into rent for more permanent housing.

The city paid a nearly $1.5 million deposit for the rooms in the five hotels, equivalent to the cost of two weeks' stay in the rooms, according to initial contracts with the hotels. The city renewed contracts at two isolation and quarantine hotel rooms for an additional month. At Hotel One Sixty-Six, rooms now cost $104 per night, while at Hotel Julian, which is now also open to nursing home workers, each night costs the city $99.

Three weeks into his stay at Hotel One Sixty-Six, Hamlin still maintains a tidy room. Every day, he makes his bed and double-checks for crumbs on the floor. The only clutter is the jigsaw puzzle at his desk, which still has him stumped.

He has stayed sober for his longest stretch in three years after long struggling with addiction to crack cocaine. "I can't be around people who care about me, because I don't care about me," he explained.

As he waits for word about housing, Hamlin said he feels freer than ever to return to the workforce and reconnect with his children. He prays he can start fresh in the Austin neighborhood, where he lived for 50 years in a "seesaw" state: clean from drugs one day, relapsing the next.

"I know that my destination is going to be worth the wait," Hamlin said. "I don't care how long I got to be inside this room. When I leave here, I'm going to have my own place."

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

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