Housing Forward has made a major stride in its battle to upend homelessness by entering into a year-long lease with the Write Inn. Housing Forward, which works to transition people experiencing homelessness into stable housing, will use the hotel to house clients in its interim housing program.
“We’re super excited,” said Lynda Schueler, Housing Forward executive director. “This is a game-changer for us.”
The interim housing program provides temporary housing for clients until a permanent residence becomes available. The 65-room hotel will not act as an emergency shelter. Housing Forward will use it strictly for interim housing. The individuals who will soon move into the Write Inn have already been screened and approved by Housing Forward for permanent housing.
“We want to make sure that homelessness is rare and brief and short-term,” said Schueler.
Once permanent apartments become available, the individuals will move out of Write Inn and other approved clients will take their place.
“We can provide them with short-term accommodation, and set people on the right path,” said Schueler. “We don’t want anyone to be acclimated to the circumstances of homelessness.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Housing Forward operated emergency night shelters at rotating locations and did so for 27 years.
The highly infectious nature of the virus made that traditional model untenable. Since March 23, Housing Forward has been operating with great success out of hotels, including the Carleton of Oak Park on Pleasant Street. The Write Inn is on Oak Park Avenue north of Scoville Park.
“This is going to be our future,” said Schueler.
Under the new hotel system, Housing Forward clients have increased their engagement with the organization’s services, including its employment readiness program.
“This is one of those silver linings that have come out of the pandemic,” said Schueler.
Case managers check in daily with the clients staying in the hotels. The rotating shelter model made it difficult for case managers to keep track of people’s whereabouts.
The individuals utilizing Housing Forward also prefer the hotel system, according to Schueler.
“We’re going from a model where people slept on a two-inch thick pad on the floor, where they were sleeping eight inches away from a stranger,” said Schueler.
The number of people Housing Forward has to turn away has also decreased since abandoning the rotating shelter system.
“People aren’t having to wait in line for shelter,” said Schueler.
Now, if someone is in need of shelter, Housing Forward is able to screen them and identify any other options that person may have before putting them up in a hotel.
“We’ve been able to divert about 20 percent of those who have called us or have been referred to us,” said Schueler.
In the course of the past seven months, Housing Forward has served 196 individuals and provided 19,860 nights of shelter.
“Which is 50 percent more than we would normally even be able to provide in the course of a normal shelter year,” said Schueler.
Housing Forward pays for the hotels that replaced nightly shelters at a monthly rate. The agreement with Write Inn is unique in that Housing Forward pays based on a daily rate.
“We have a monthly rent based off a negotiated daily rate,” said Schueler.
And can afford to do so, in part, using a combination of state and federal funding, including grants from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Of the almost $1 million in CARES Act funding the village of Oak Park received, the village board gave $400,000 to Housing Forward to fund a program of apartment rental assistance for local residents unable to pay rent to their landlords due to COVID-19.
The agreement with Write Inn is distinguishable from Housing Forward’s other hotel agreements in that the use of the Write Inn is strictly for the interim housing program.
“I really want to get clear that it’s not an emergency shelter,” said Schueler.
After being accepted into the interim housing program, Housing Forward clients sign an agreement stating they understand the rules and intend to follow them. It is against the rules to engage in loitering or panhandling.
“There’s no reason to do that when they have their own room in the building,” said Schueler.
Schueler does not anticipate Housing Forward having to evict anyone.
“We don’t plan on doing evictions because we’re going to make sure everybody has a path to housing,” said Schueler.
Housing Forward will begin moving people into the Write Inn in a week or so. Under the leasing agreement, Housing Forward has exclusive access to the Write Inn, which has been closed to guests since March due to COVID-19.
“We really see this as a win-win,” said Schueler. “We’re helping a local small business.”
The hotel’s owner, James Bushouse also owns the building on the southeast corner of Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street. His tenants include Oberweis and Mulata.
Housing Forward will staff the Write Inn 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Staff will be supplemented by volunteers. The organization has a network of 1,200 volunteers, most of whom live in Oak Park and attend local churches, according to Schueler.
Clients living in the Write Inn will enter through an entrance separate from the hotel’s restaurant, Hemmingway’s Bistro.
“We encourage everybody to patronize them,” said Schueler.
The Housing Forward entrance will be controlled by a keycard like a hotel, giving staff and volunteers knowledge of who comes and goes from the building. Cameras have also been installed on the interior and exterior of the Write Inn.
While the agreement lasts a full year, living in the Write Inn is meant to be a very transitory experience for interim housing program clients. Schueler expects individuals to live there for no more than 90 days.
“Our goal is when people move into the program that we begin to work on their exit strategy, which is getting them into the pipeline for permanent housing,” said Schueler.
Housing Forward has not yet made a decision on whether it will continue its agreements with the other hotels it has been using.
“We want to be very mindful of our capacity at the Write Inn and if we need to continue at the other hotels, we may do that,” said Schueler. “But that’s not in our immediate future.”