Wednesday, 9:17 a.m., 21 degrees. The Night Ministry street medicine van is about to set out from its Ashland Avenue headquarters.
Once the two staffers inside figure out where they’re going on their rounds.
“We have a client who had an encounter with a bus — the bus won,” explains case manager Sylvia Hibbard, who’s in the driver’s seat. The homeless man with a cast on his foot is first stop on the list that senior nurse practitioner Stephan Koruba makes, taking calls, jotting notes on a clipboard.
“We’re missing an outreach worker who normally drives, answers the phone, plans the route and does needle exchange,” Koruba says. “We have a reduced presence due to COVID. We’re struggling a little bit.”
So those duties are now theirs, the missing worker one tiny twist of the vise that is slowly crushing frontline social service agencies at the beginning of the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On one side, the pressure of ever-rising need.
“We’ve seen families coming to us for the very first time who have never had to ask for help before and now have to,” says Xavier Montenegro, divisional secretary for programs at the Salvation Army, metropolitan division.
“There have been a significant increase in the number of youth reaching out to us under the age of 12, down to age 8, a 53% increase in 2020,” says Susan Frankel, CEO of the National Runaway Safeline. “It’s indirectly or directly COVID-related.”
“COVID threw us all a curveball,” says Kristina Lowenstein, executive director of the Honeycomb Project, which supports charitable organizations. “Nonprofits have seen ballooning demand. Food pantries seeing 300, 400% increases in folks looking for their services.”
On the other side, decimated, weary staffs. The Runaway Safeline pairs help with desperate teens and children anywhere in the country who call any time day or night, so they have a granular sense of both the rising nationwide demand and overtaxed available resources.
“Your pool of services and supporters continues to get smaller and smaller,” Frankel says, “while the need gets larger and larger.”
Agency staffers are exhausted from two years in full crisis mode, increasingly sick themselves, thanks to the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Some simply quit, leaving their organizations scrambling.
“The Catholic Charities staff is resilient, off the charts. I’m in awe of our people,” says Ami Novoryta, chief program officer for the archdiocese’s network serving hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans. “But they are tired and need help. We need staff. We need help.”
“The unpredictability right now,” says Marna Goldwin, CEO of The Ark, which visits elderly shut-ins. “So many people getting COVID. Volunteers cancelling left and right. Just juggling, trying to deliver food and medication, and you get a call at 10:30 at night that you just lost your army for the next day.”
Being sick, or having your loved ones sick, is just the start. Take the sporadic closures of Chicago Public Schools. The focus has been on undercut education. But each closed school sends out ripples, such as cancelled Red Cross blood drives, building to a national crisis where the blood reserve is now less than a day.
Consider what school being closed means to a child at risk.
“Maybe a program at school or sports that have been cancelled. Maybe a coach, a favorite teacher they were chatting with at lunch,” Frankel says. “Not having access to things that make an enormous difference in a young person’s life. They don’t have that, so where else do they go?”
It’s hard for teachers to see signs of abuse over ZOOM. Closing CPS meant IGNITE’s Bronzeville Youth Shelter sat empty.
“Once the schools returned in person, we started seeing those referrals coming back because teachers were getting in front of students again,” says Doug Mowery, senior director of residential programs for Ignite, which runs the Bronzeville emergency shelter and three other facilities.
Thousands of homeless students have simply dropped from sight. Before the pandemic, in January 2018, there were 15,541 students CPS identified as “in temporary living situations,” aka, homeless. Now it’s 8,955.
“We don’t think that is because less students are experiencing homelessness,” says Alyssa Phillips, education attorney for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless “Less students are getting identified.”
Shelters forced to go to one-half or one-third capacity turn away people seeking a warm refuge. Needy families find food pantry shelves bare because donations can’t be collected because there are no volunteers to receive them, nor sort them, nor keep the pantries open.
“It’s a completely different ball game now,” says Night Ministry President Paul Hamann. “We had to cut the capacity for our health outreach bus by 50% through the month of January, We had to close our drop-in center. This is going on across the country.
“Our employees have been hard at it the past 21, 22 months, during the pandemic, and Omicron just overtook us. We made the difficult choice to cut back ... give our staff a break. They’ve been on the frontlines with the homeless since March 2020. They’re human. They need a break.”
Wednesday 9:30 a.m., Belmont and Kedzie, one of those tent encampments tucked under an expressway that drivers glance at in passing.
Carlos Rivera, 56, has lived here for three years. He rolls a cigarette in the doorway of a plywood container, wrapped in insulation from O’Hare food carts. His right foot is in a black walking cast after having it run over on Christmas Eve while trying to retrieve his backpack from a moving CTA bus.
“Excuse the mess, I’m homeless,” says Rivera, who lives in a nearby tent. “This is a dump. Six cats live here.”
Six men live here? It seems too jammed with cans and clutter.
“No real cats, real animals,” he says. “Smokey, Delilah, Midnight I, Midnight II, Lil’ Bit ...”
“We’re going to Uber him over to the clinic,” Koruba says. Pre-COVID they might have driven Rivera; now they can’t take the time or the risk. “With the new Omicron surge we aren’t transporting clients at this point.”
While Koruba sets up the ride, Hibbard leans into a tent made from blankets and talks to a couple who were supposed to move into Mercy Housing at the end of December and are now looking at Feb. 1.
“You’re going to sign your lease on that day, but the move in ...” Hibbard says.
The biggest misperception is that permitting such “sanctioned encampments” or giving residents support somehow encourages homelessness by making it “easy.” The opposite is true. Getting someone off the street is a lengthy process. You need to be able to regularly find your client as the process inches along.
“It’s a really big deal for us to know they’re going to be there,” Koruba says. “For following up, doing our job and getting people off the street, is a huge difference.”
10 a.m., near West Kinzie, a pair of tents await under a sky of metal girders.
“Night Ministry! Night Ministry!” Hibbard calls. The man she’s looking for is gone.
“He may be panhandling up at the Jewel,” she says. “We can stop by there.”
This checking up is vital. COVID has been catastrophic for drug addicts.
“Overdose rates have spiked; opioid overdose rates dramatically increasing over the course of the pandemic,” says Alysan Anderson, who works with at-risk expectant mothers in Roseland for Catholic Charities. “The leading cause of maternal mortality right now is opioid overdose.”
A big problem before, much worse now.
“In 2020, was a 30% increase in overdose deaths, in the general population,” Anderson says.
“People are so isolated. It causes them to relapse,” she says. “And when you’re alone, there is a higher rate of overdose because people aren’t around to see if you’re OK.”
Because sometimes they are not OK.
“We lost a few folks last week, unfortunately” Koruba says. Two Fridays ago, one man, Joe, was missing.
“I thought, ‘Maybe he got housing,” he says. “He was making progress.”
Turns out, Joe got wet in the rain the day before and froze to death in his tent during the cold snap.
“You mourn the loss,” Koruba says. “I do. I may not be affected by number one and two. But the third one takes the wind out of my sails.”
“For me, it’s very personal,” Hibbard says. “My brother is suffering from mental illness. I’ve seen him when he was younger, when there were no signs. Even though he was housed, I’ve been him looking worse than any homeless person. Looking in his eyes, he was still my brother. This is somebody that had dreams as a young man. Nobody ever states, when they’re growing up, ‘I’m going to be homeless.’ Something happened in their life that got them to the point where they ended up on the street.”
11 a.m., just north of Roosevelt Road, the van parks beside the iron fence between Desplaines Street and a garbage strewn tent encampment where an open fire blazes.
Marcus Bailey, 35, wants a booster shot. Koruba flips open a laptop.
“I’m looking up your last shot so we can go ahead and get your card made,” he says.
Bailey has been homeless for 15 years and knows exactly why he needs a booster.
“Because I ain’t trying to die!” he says. “I’m supposed to be getting my crib on the 26th of this month, so I’m just waiting.”
Hibbard points to a banner attached to the fence, a tribute to tent city resident Norene ‘L’il Bit’ Morehead.
“We had her moved, L’il Bit ...” says Hibbard, flatly. “Two months after she got an apartment, they found her dead.”
Bailey gets his shot and his vaccine card.
“It didn’t hurt,” he says.
There are more stops on Koruba’s list. The need never ends. The pandemic grinds on. Those caught in its grip, workers and clients, get by the best they can.
The bottom line: Social workers are here for one reason. I ask Koruba how he can work day in and day out with people who are broken, often helpless, often backsliding, often with not much hope of improvement.
“That’s the difference, the hope,” he replies. “Just because folks are in a bad way doesn’t mean they can’t get better, they can’t get their dreams back, can’t get their lives back. They’ve fallen through the cracks and need a hand up. Offer it to them, and some of them will take it. To see someone regain autonomy and their dreams? Holy cow! We’re out here for that.”
Contributing: Ashlee Rezin.