To help slow the spread of the coronavirus, social distancing has become less of a suggestion and more of an expectation. However, highly populated cities like Chicago, New York City or Boston are faced with the unique challenge of social distancing among the homeless population — a large population in downtown areas with severely limited lodging options.
As a result of businesses and public spaces closing in March, as well as a stay at home order, homelessness overcrowding had become a significant problem in Chicago homeless shelters. In response, the YMCA of Metro Chicago came up with a simple solution to provide relief.
According to Man-Yee Lee, the director of communications at the Metro Chicago Y, the solution was predicated on a simple fact: the organization had a lot of facility space that wasn’t being used. “We have these tremendous resources — facilities — that are just standing empty, and we were really itching to do something to help with this crisis,” she said.
After discussing ways to help the community with the mayor’s office, the Metro Chicago Y and City of Chicago joined forces to turn the organization’s facilities into temporary homeless shelters. Hundreds of displaced or homeless individuals were moved from the shelters into the Y’s facilities, giving them the space they need to practice social distancing.
“It was going to be very hard for people in those shelters, because they simply don’t have the space to remain six feet apart,” said Lee. “What do we have? We have the space. So we’ve been able to act as an emergency shelter for hundreds of people in this situation.”
Since the initial conversation with the mayor’s office, the Metro Chicago Y has been able to move 400 cots, complete with the necessary bedding, into its facilities. And the Y was able to make it happen in the span of 24 hours, thanks to swift planning and execution, as well as some shared resources and staffing from the city.
“I worked 16 hours that day, and it is my absolute pleasure,” recalled Lee. “It was phenomenal — I’ve never been a part of something so amazing. After all, how can we call ourselves a community organization if we’re not there to help the community in times of crisis?”
As communities continue to adjust to changes brought on by the coronavirus, it’s paramount for community rec centers to be mindful of where the most pressing needs are and determine the best ways to help.
“I’m hoping many other nonprofit organizations like us, who have facilities like this, can do the same thing,” said Lee. “No one’s going to benefit if this virus continues to spread, and we have to think about every pocket of society — it can’t just be those who have the resources they need.”