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‘It hurts’ — Food pantries shut down, shelters try to cope amid coronavirus crisis

Dozens of food pantries have closed during the COVID-19 crisis, which is spiking demand for social services just as many volunteers must quarantine themselves. “People are calling us scared. Really, really scared.”

Volunteers help break down and repackage food at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Tuesday, March 24, 2020.
Volunteers help package food at the Greater Chicago Food Depository on Tuesday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

It isn’t just restaurants and bars, museums and stores.

Organizations that provide food to the poorest Illinoisans are shutting down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Other social service agencies, like homeless shelters, are struggling to adjust.

In the past two weeks, 112 Chicago-area food pantries have closed, 82 in Cook County — almost a quarter of the 370 food pantries served by the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

“The number is shocking” said Greg Trotter, spokesman for depository. “It hurts and it has an impact.”

In the 13 collar counties, another 30 food pantries closed in the past week, according to the Northern Illinois Food Bank, mostly because those who run them don’t want to risk exposure to COVID-19.

“Our pantries largely rely upon the help from volunteers, and a lot of our volunteers tend to be older folks, seniors who have time to spare,” said Liz Gartman, communications manager for the food bank. ”Many of those same folks are taking health precautions very seriously, as they should, so they don’t feel comfortable coming in.”

Greater Chicago Food Depository warehouse.
There’s food to be distributed at the Greater Food Depository; the more immediate issue is people. Many older volunteers, who are more at risk from the coronavirus, don’t feel comfortable coming in to work during the pandemic.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The pantries that remain are scrambling to fill the gaps.

“We serve from Devon to Lawrence and the Lake to Western,” said Mustafa Abdul Maboud, operations manager of CareForReal in Edgewater. Lately, he said, they’ve been “helping people outside the boundaries” because of the high number of pantries now shuttered.

Many of the closed pantries are small, run by a few volunteers out of a church. But even large Chicago social service organizations are contemplating having to abruptly close their facilities.

“We’re already making contingency plans in the event we can no longer keep our doors open,” said Marc J. Swatez, executive director of The Ark, which provides relief services to 4,000 clients in Rogers Park. The hope is to work remotely but that raises questions: “What do I do? How can we get people pharmaceuticals? How can we get people food? How can we get people rent assistance? If I can’t staff the place, I can’t staff the place.”

Shelters also exposed to complications

Then there is the problem of running shelters without crowding people close together.

“Communal living is not a good situation at this time. Staying in a basement is preferable to staying in a homeless shelter,” said Swatez, who is trying to find apartments for people in The Ark’s Sarnoff Levin Transitional Residence. “I’m in the process. I had 14; now I have seven. If I can get everyone out, then I’ll close it.”

The Crib, The Night Ministry’s shelter, mainly for LGBTQ young adults, is in the basement of Lakeview Lutheran Church on Addison. It has taken makeshift steps to separate its 21 guests.

The Crib, Night Ministry’s youth shelter program, is housed at Lake View Lutheran Church.
The Crib, Night Ministry’s youth shelter program, is housed at Lake View Lutheran Church.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“Friday we put out a call to donors and social media; we needed some sheets to put up as barriers at night between the mattresses to give each person a little more individual space,” said Burke Patten, a spokesman for The Night Ministry, whose core mission is providing shelter and medical services to the homeless. The sheets were hung on clotheslines. “We are trying to be creative with the limitations we have.”

Meanwhile, the need for help grows as jobs vanish and meager savings are exhausted.

“Our demand was up 250% last week,” said Swatez. “More and more people are calling in crisis. People calling us, scared. Really, really scared.”

The fear among social service agencies is that key personnel will get sick or the virus will be spread among clients. On March 12, the Greater Chicago Food Depository sent an advisory encouraging members to stop sit-down meals.

“With soup kitchens, we’ve been advising them to prepare meals to go,” said Trotter. “People still have to eat, but the whole idea is to minimize risk.”

Chef Bill Kim owner of Urban Belly helps break down and repackage food at the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
Chef Bill Kim, owner of Urban Belly, helps repackage food at the Greater Chicago Food Depository on Tuesday. Some volunteers are staying home, forcing dozens of food banks to close across the Chicago area.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“We’re doing curbside,” said Lori Cannon, whose GroceryLand USA provides food for Chicagoans with HIV. Before the crisis, clients would browse aisles, like a regular grocery store. Now they’re handed bags through the door.

”It’s a ‘Hello.’ It’s a ‘Be careful.’ It’s a ‘Goodbye,’” said Cannon.

“Our setup has dramatically changed,” said Lori Gee, executive director of Ravenswood Community Services. ”Usually we’re a community gathering place, serving family-style food that gets passed. We obviously aren’t doing any of that. Now we’re handing to-go meals and groceries out at the door, pre-packing bags, maintaining social distances, trying to keep our volunteers and our neighbors safe, and really limited the number of volunteers that can be on site and have them spread out. If one of our volunteers gets sick, my expectation is the health department would shut us down. That’s our biggest fear.”

Charities are trying to figure out what happens then.

“Nonprofits that do work with people are all thinking about contingency plans,” said Ald. Harry Osterman (48th). “All organizations are looking at staffing and volunteers, trying to figure out how to keep essential functions going.”

The Night Ministry’s medical bus, which brings a clinic to the homeless and indigent in neighborhoods across Chicago, cut 45 minutes from its usual two-hour stops.

“We’re still providing health care, meals and supplies,” said Patten. “But we don’t want to encourage people to congregate.”

That’s not easy for either clients or staff.

“These people come to us seeking companionship, someone to listen to, someone to talk to,” said Patten. It can be hard to explain “why we’re not giving out hugs right now.”

“We can let you see the nurse. We can get you a meal. Then we’re asking people respectfully to move on,” he said. “That’s tough for us.”

The Night Ministry has shorted the time its medical bus stops at locations around Chicago, to reduce the kind of crowding seen here in 2007 in Humboldt Park.
The Night Ministry has shortened the time its medical bus stops at locations around Chicago, to reduce the kind of crowding seen here in 2007 in Humboldt Park.
Sun-Times file

“It’s frustrating,” said Maboud. “Some cannot understand why we are doing it this way. We have to take all these precautions to make sure our clients and volunteers are safe.”

The good news is that many lower-risk Chicagoans are overcoming anxiety about their own future by helping those facing hard times now. The Night Ministry collected $47,000 in donations online in the first two weeks of March, compared to $7,000 in the same period last year. Closing is not an option.

“We can’t close, we can’t close,” said Paul Hamann, Night Ministry president and CEO. “I cannot put 61 young people out on the streets. It’s not going to happen. Our shelters, our health care, they’re a front-line public health response to this situation”

Staffers from shuttered neighborhood clubs showed up at GroceryLand to help pack groceries. A bartender brought bags of lemons and limes.

“We’ve got people with nothing but time, part of the original AIDS epidemic, who clearly remember rising to the occasion and feel a compulsion to continue to be a lifeline, to continue to serve the LGBTQ community,” said Cannon, who founded the organization in 1990. “We’ve had leather boys come in, we’ve had actors. Everyone wants to be part of something that is meaningful. They all want to be part of something bigger than themselves.”

“There is definitely a very inspiring contingent of folks,” said Gartman, of the Geneva-based Northern Illinois Food Bank. “Who say, ‘I have a responsibility to serve my neighbors right now.’ They feel very empowered, almost obligated. They want to be here. School-age kids finding something to do. We just had a great group from a church in Elgin. The pastor said, ‘We’re here to help our community.’ It’s been really inspiring to see folks who are still coming, who feel very, very, very passionate about this, that this is more important than ever.”

Since the early 1980s, the 70-year-old Cannon has been part of the battle in Chicago to get the government to recognize AIDS as a public health problem; she provides perspective on the current health terror.

“Everything has a beginning, a middle and an end,” she said. “Right now this is the beginning. People are panicking. We are trying to stay the course and be smart. We’ll get through this. We did it last time. Once again, the LGBTQ community has arisen to take care of one another. There is no reason to expect anything less.”

For those who need help: the Greater Chicago Food Depository has an online portal to connect with services at https://www.chicagosfoodbank.org/find-food/. Also, the Northern Illinois Food Bank connects to services at https://solvehungertoday.org/get-help/where-to-get-food/

For those who want to help: Give to The Ark at https://arkchicago.org/ or The Night Ministry at https://www.thenightministry.org/support-us. Volunteer or donate to the food depositories at their web sites above. Or donate to Care for Real at https://forms.donorsnap.com/form?id=ca4fe3b3-ae45-49ca-92f6-5dbc5b1159a9.

Homeless men wait to receive toiletries from the back of a Night Ministry worker’s car, just off Lower Wacker Drive, in 2016.
Homeless men wait to receive toiletries from the back of a Night Ministry worker’s car, just off Lower Wacker Drive, in 2016.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times