It's been a year since the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency over the coronavirus. And while The Night Ministry has made adjustments to adapt to the pandemic, COVID-19 has not changed the agency's dedication to its mission to provide housing, health care, and human connection to individuals experiencing homelessness or poverty.
"This is now part of daily life for us, especially for our frontline workers on the streets and in our shelters, who are working valiantly in an emergency situation every day," said Paul W. Hamann, President & CEO of The Night Ministry. "However, we are not a coronavirus organization. The Night Ministry remains an organization serving our community members struggling with homelessness or poverty. Right now, we happen to be serving during a pandemic, but we will continue to serve when the public health emergency is over."
Safety protocols put in place last year when the pandemic began are still being followed, including the wearing of masks and PPE and practicing social distancing in the shelters and at Health Outreach Bus stops and Street Medicine sites.
Meanwhile, the agency has found several ways to respond to the evolving needs of Chicagoans experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. The Crib, its overnight shelter for young adults, operated around the clock for several months last year, providing young people a safe environment in which they could shelter in place, and is currently open 24/7 again through at least the end of February. An agency wide initiative is bringing the services of the Health Outreach Program and Youth Outreach Team to Chicago's public transit system to reach the increased number of unsheltered individuals who are riding the trains overnight. And, despite the pandemic, The Night Ministry has helped 192 young people and adults transition into more permanent housing over the last year, at a rate that is roughly the same as the prior year.
Testing for the virus remains an important tool in preventing its spread. Since last year, The Night Ministry has partnered with Howard Brown Health Center to provide testing on an as-needed basis for shelter clients. Testing events were also hosted at several Health Outreach Bus stops. More recently, The Night Ministry's Youth Housing Programs received access to a rapid antigen test that can be administered on-site if shelter residents display coronavirus symptoms.
"Screening for COVID-19 symptoms and testing as needed have been critical to our coronavirus response," said Mary Poliwka, Community Health Manager. "If someone is exhibiting severe symptoms, we'll make arrangements to send them to the emergency room."
There is hope on the horizon with the rollout of the coronavirus vaccines. Staff with the Health Outreach Bus, Street Medicine, and The Night Ministry's Youth Housing Programs have begun the process of vaccination. Under the State of Illinois' rollout plan, residents of congregate living settings such as homeless shelters are now eligible to receive the vaccine.
In preparation for the vaccine being offered to residents of The Night Ministry's shelters, staff have been providing education around vaccination, said Nieal Marie Ross, Manager of Youth Supportive Services.
"Many of the youth we serve are people of color. And there have been a lot of misconceptions about the vaccine, much of it related to health disparities in the African American community and discrimination that African Americans have experienced in the health care system," said Ross. "Our goal has been to provide information so that our residents can make an informed decision about whether to receive the vaccination. And so far, they have been very receptive to the discussions."
What's not clear at this point is the timing of vaccination availability to Chicago's unsheltered homeless population, said Tedd Peso, Director of Strategic Partnerships. Peso argues that good public health policy would recognize that Chicagoans who are living on the streets are as vulnerable as those residing in shelters.
"Encampments are congregate living settings," he said. "And rates of underlying health conditions are also high among individuals struggling with homelessness."
Peso acknowledges there will be hurdles in vaccinating Chicago's unsheltered homeless.
"The population faces significant barriers in accessing health care services at traditional sites such as hospitals and clinics. In addition, this is a very transient population, which poses a challenge as most of the vaccines require two doses administered weeks apart," he said. "So, figuring out exactly how to deliver the vaccine to unsheltered members of our community will be important."
Meanwhile, clients of The Night Ministry living on the streets are still feeling the ongoing social and economic impact of the pandemic, said Sophia Managuit, Street Medicine Outreach Worker.
"They're struggling with continued loss of income, which leads to increased requests for assistance with obtaining permanent housing and, for those who use drugs, substance abuse treatment," she said.
Another big challenge, Managuit said, is finding shelter.
"Capacity at most adult shelters across the city is at a maximum," she said, as the decompression of the shelter system in response to the pandemic has left fewer available beds.
"So, when a client asks us to help them find a place to stay immediately, we often don't have good alternatives," she said.
There have been setbacks for residents of The Night Ministry's Youth Housing Programs, as well, including job losses and difficulty finding employment. But staff have helped residents make progress.
"The percentage of residents who achieved an employment or education goal actually increased over the last year, as compared to a year before," said Damian Nelson, Director of Learning & Impact. "They are continuing to take important steps such as creating resumes and attending educational workshops while staying with us."