Chicago Tribune: Housing Forward inks deal with Write Inn to house homeless clients at historic Oak Park hotel
Thursday, October 8th, 2020
Housing Forward has signed a one-year agreement to use the Write Inn hotel, 211 N. Oak Park Ave., as a 65-room shelter for its homeless clients. Officials say the hotel is not intended for 'long-term stays,' but a shelter to get clients back on their feet. (Steve Schering / Pioneer Press)
Oak Park-based Housing Forward has agreed to a one-year deal with the 65-room Write Inn hotel to serve as temporary housing for its homeless clients, meaning an end to its rotating, nightly shelter service.
The move follows a national trend of nonprofits utilizing empty hotel space to safely house homeless individuals and families, who are among the most vulnerable to the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Now in its 28th year, Housing Forward previously operated a shelter system that rotated locations nightly, known as PADS. Due to the pandemic, many churches that served as overnight housing for homeless individuals could no longer operate in such a way.
During the past seven months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization began partnering with local hotels in several suburbs, which allowed unused rooms to serve as temporary housing for those experiencing homelessness.
Housing Forward Executive Director Lynda Schueler said the organization previously partnered with the Carleton Hotel in Oak Park, the Super 8 in Northlake and Best Western in Franklin Park to house clients, but began seeking a single location to operate
“It’s really become financially unfeasible for us to continue operating with our staff being so spread out and just the cost of renting units, so we were directed to speak with the owners of the Write Inn about 8 to 10 weeks ago,” Schueler said. “This has moved really super quickly. Our board made the decision to sign a one-year lease knowing we’ve entered the fall season and are going into winter.”
Housing Forward officials say the Write Inn, 211 N. Oak Park Ave., provides an ideal opportunity to design a new program model that offers a safe environment and a temporary place for people to stabilize while they seek a permanent housing destination.
“This is a bit of a silver lining in the pandemic by being able to have a 24/7 program here in the village,” Schueler said. “People can stay there, come and go as they please, and we will have structured programming over there. The old PADS model was very different with time limitations and people not being able to sometimes get into the shelter or being turned away because of capacity limits.”
Schueler said the organization has found the model to be healthy in that no client has tested positive for COVID-19 since Housing Forward being using hotels.
As part of the agreement, Housing Forward will use all four floors of the hotel, its 65 rooms and outside patio. The program will have rooms on each floor for staff and one communal area where packaged meals can be set up twice each day for clients to pick up.
Housing Forward has already made some modifications to the building, including creating a separate side entrance door with direct access to the elevator and installing 28 cameras both inside and outside the building, Schueler said.
Representatives with Housing Forward also met with nearby neighbors via Zoom and spoke to the operators of the Hemingway Bistro on the first floor. She said some expressed concerns about clients congregating outside the building to smoke, but said the plan wasn’t met with any major pushback.
“The neighbors were very gracious,” Schueler said. “We will have staffing at the front desk and no outside guests are coming in to sleep over. It’s not that type of program. We think we can [share] the same building together [with the bistro].”
Schueler said the lease has a built-in option for Housing Forward to renew the agreement, as well as an option to purchase the building, but she was hesitant to speculate on the future.
“Who knows what will happen in the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter in 2021,” Schueler said. “Our hope is that we will be able to [continue there]. We do not want to revert back to the PADS shelter model.”
The village of Oak Park annually supports Housing Forward with funding, including a $400,000 community development block grant awarded in June 2020 for rental, mortgage and/or utility assistance. In fall 2019, the village awarded the organization a $156,188 CDB grant. Housing Forward officials say the new hotel agreement is being funded through CARES Act money distributed through Cook County.
Schueler provided an update on the plan to the Oak Park village board on Oct. 5. It was met with unanimous support by village trustees.
“Thank you so much for this,” trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla said. “I think this is a silver lining of the pandemic. There aren’t many of them, but this is definitely one of them. We’re shifting our homeless model to more of what I believe is needed, which is a housing-first approach.”
Others on the board said the partnership is a major win-win for both the hotel and Housing Forward.
“I can’t say enough about your tireless work as an agency,” trustee Simone Boutet said. “To see two things come together with an opportunity for a giant solution is so inspiring.”
As the program gets up and running, Schueler stressed the goal of the hotel is not to provide permanent housing for those experiencing homelessness, but rather serve as a first step in getting them back on their feet.
“Once people enter the program, we work on an exit strategy so they can get housed,” Schueler said. “It’s not intended to be a long-term stay for anybody. There’s no reason under this model that anybody needs to return to the streets.”