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Homeless to get testing, nurse visits, other protections to limit spread during pandemic

The plan announced by Mayor Lori Lightfoot includes: tests of more than 700 shelter residents weekly; shelter visits from health department nurses; a 100-bed isolation facility for those with mental health or substance abuse issues.

Workers from the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation clear out a homeless encampment near South Desplaines Street and West Roosevelt Road, Monday morning, Feb. 10, 2020.
City workers are shown in February during a regular clean-up at a homeless encampment near South Desplaines Street and West Roosevelt Road, The city has installed portable latrines and hand-washing stations at larger homeless camps.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

A stay-at-home order doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t have a home.

With that in mind, Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday unveiled a sweeping plan to test, protect and treat homeless Chicagoans most vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus.

Last month, City Hall forged an agreement with the YMCA of Metro Chicago and the Salvation Army to open 699 temporary shelter beds at shuttered YMCA facilities so homeless Chicagoans can maintain at least six feet of social distance.

Some of those beds were earmarked for women, children and inmates newly released from Cook County Jail. The Department of Family and Support Services also made regular visits to Chicago’s largest homeless encampments and installed a dozen portable washrooms and hand-washing stations at encampments with more than 10 people.

The plan announced Monday goes far beyond those initial steps.

It includes: testing more than 700 shelter residents for COVID-19 each week; having health department nurses visit shelters to provide “in-person education and screenings”; pairing “community-based providers” with shelters to provide “ongoing clinical support”; providing temporary housing in individual rooms with support services to “shield the most vulnerable shelter residents”; and establishing a 100-bed “isolation facility with wrap-around services” for homeless Chicagoans also suffering from mental health or substance abuse issues.

Until the pandemic brought everyday life in Chicago to a halt, Lightfoot’s biggest concern was her war on poverty and her plan to target 10 inner-city neighborhoods for an unprecedented $250 million city investment and $500 million more from other government agencies.

She was being pressured from the left to deliver more money for the homeless and affordable housing. She was resisting demands to earmark a guaranteed percentage of a graduated real estate transfer tax for that specific purpose.

On Monday, the mayor argued that the coronavirus pandemic has exposed what she called the “chasms in our society when it comes to those who are vulnerable.”

“They were in need before this crisis and they are more in need now. And we have to respond continuously to fill the void and address the need for our vulnerable populations,” Lightfoot said.

“All of this serves as a wake-up call to our city on the life-and-death importance of closing the gaps in equity and opportunity, particularly when it comes to poverty, housing insecurity and other issues that make people vulnerable. We’ve got to tackle those head-on. The work that we’re doing now is building a foundation and an infrastructure on which we will be able to address these issues in the long-term.”