Homeless urge CHA to open vacant public housing units during coronavirus crisis

There are some 2,000 vacant units across the Chicago Housing Authority’s portfolio, advocates said.

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Activists with the Chicago Housing Initiative participate in a “car protest” and drive around City Hall in the Loop to decry the conditions faced by Chicago’s homeless during the coronavirus pandemic, Tuesday morning, April 21, 2020.

Activists with the Chicago Housing Initiative participate in a car protest Tuesday and drive around City Hall in the Loop to decry the conditions faced by Chicago’s homeless during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Housing advocates urged the Chicago Housing Authority on Tuesday to open up its 2,000 vacant units to people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic.

Their demands come as homeless shelters across the city fear becoming overwhelmed in the coming days as between 30% and 45% of people tested positive for the virus at some locations.

“The CHA is doing a grave injustice for the homeless, and in our darkest hour they’re still dragging their feet,” said Kevin Reynolds, a grassroots organizer with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

“I’ve been on the CHA waitlist for over three years. ... So when I found out that CHA has over 1,800 available units that they’re just sitting on, it was like a slap in the face,” Reynolds said during a news conference Tuesday.

“Do they plan on ever filling these apartments? I understand there’s a vetting process, but in a time of crisis like this, placing the homeless in these units should be the top priority.”

The Chicago Housing Authority said Tuesday filling up the 2,042 vacant units across its portfolio isn’t easy. Around 900 of those units are scheduled for redevelopment and are not habitable, the agency said, while other vacant units are in the process of being rented out.

Many vacant units are also interspersed with other family and senior buildings, the CHA said, making them ill-suited for quarantine purposes if a resident tests positive for coronavirus.

The CHA also said it must abide by waitlist and admission protocols established by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which already give preference to homeless families and other groups like victims of domestic abuse.

But advocates argue that the CHA can fast-track the applications of people who are homeless during the pandemic so they can better abide by shelter-in-place orders issued by the state.

“On April 10, HUD issued a notice to housing authorities ... that gave [them] broad and immediate ability to waive provisions of federal law and regulations,” said Kate Walz, director of housing justice at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. “We think the CHA could use that flexible authority to create more opportunities for people who are housing unstable or who are homeless and become a real partner in this effort.”

Earlier this month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot rented out two downtown hotels to care for homeless people who have contracted the virus and opened a new temporary isolation facility at A Safe Haven, a shelter on the West Side. The city has also partnered with the YMCA of Metro Chicago and Salvation Army to open extra shelter beds.

But advocates say homeless people who have contracted COVID-19 are returning to crowded shelters. Allowing them to instead take up residence in vacant CHA units, they argue, would help the city mitigate the spread of the virus.

“We’re not just talking about protecting all of those who are using shelters and are homeless. This is part of the city of Chicago’s COVID-19 response, and having a pocket of vulnerable population who is not protected ... is a weakness in the city’s overall response and needs to be addressed as such,” said Dr. Susan Cheng, a board member of the Illinois Public Health Association and head of Benedictine University’s public health department.

As the news conference took place, dozens of cars circled City Hall, honking their horns in support of opening up vacant CHA units to the homeless.

One of those cars carried Cheryl Johnson, executive director of People for Community Recovery, a South Side environmental justice group, who says there are about 50 vacant CHA units in Altgeld Gardens, where she lives.

“It’s a shame the CHA is not leasing these units up considering the crisis we are in today,” Johnson said. “It’s unfortunate that we’re down here protesting to get Mayor Lightfoot to do the right thing. House our people! We’re dying on the street.”

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.

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