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Money And Demand Runs Dry For Hotel Quarantine Services

empty hotel room
Mack Male / Flickr CC-by 2.0
Central Illinois social service agencies received state and federal dollars to put people experiencing homelessness in a hotel during the COVID-19 response. That program is winding down in Peoria and Bloomington-Normal, but for different reasons.

Money—and in some cases, demand—is running out to give people experiencing homelessness a place to quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Social service agencies around the state received funding to put people up in a hotel if they were living in a shelter or didn't have anywhere to isolate. The program was intended for those with COVID-19 symptoms who have tested positive, or who are high-risk of contracting the virus.

PATH Crisis Center coordinated the program for the Central Illinois Continuum of Care that covers 11 counties, including McLean.

“It was a big experiment to kind of show, at a massive level, getting everyone off the streets,” said Erik Zdansky, program director for homeless services. “But because there’s only a limited amount of money, after that money runs out, it’s kind of back to how things were, unfortunately.”

Zdansky said funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Illinois Department of Human Services allowed PATH to shelter people for up to 20 days.

He said 35 people participated in the program--a greater demand than what was expected. Last year’s Point in Time Count, a one-night headcount of people experiencing homelessness in Bloomington-Normal, found 27 people living outside, sometimes in tents or parking garages.

Zdanksy said the hotel stay allowed PATH to make initial contact with more in need, but continuing support once they check out is harder.

“After the 20 days, it’s kind of back to normal for them, and their normal is wherever they were before unless they’re able in that 20-day period to stabilize a little bit and reconnect with family or friends,” Zdansky said. “That’s not always the case for a lot of people that are stuck in the streets. A lot of them end up back in parking garages or tents outside.”

Now that money for the program has dried up, Zdanksy said PATH is collaborating with other agencies on an “Alternate Housing Coalition” spearheaded by the McLean County Health Department and Emergency Management Agency.

Zdanksy said the service is open to any citizen, but first responders and people experiencing homelessness are prioritized because of their vulnerabilities. He said they’re hoping to continue working with hotels until permanent housing sites can be established.

“I’m looking forward to that coming to fruition so that when things start getting worse, which I’m kind of anticipating with the reopening of schools and people’s kind of jitteriness to get back to normal—that we’ll have something in place to help people out, so that we don’t spread COVID in the shelters. That’s kind of the worst-case scenario for us,” Zdansky said.

Peoria County

Public health officials in Peoria County plan to handle emergency housing for those impacted by COVID-19 on a case-by-case basis, after the hotel quarantine program saw little utilization.

The Heart of Illinois United Way recently discontinued its partnership with the Four Points by Sheraton Peoria to temporarily shelter vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 response.

Grant Allen with the Heart of Illinois United Way Homeless Continuum of Care said only nine people spent time isolating in the Four Points by Sheraton Peoria. Allen said the organization ended up returning some grant money they received to run the service. The continuum’s partnership with the Four Points ended a few weeks ago, he said.

Allen posited that not a lot of people went into the hotel because there just weren’t that many at advanced risk—and there was a drop in the number of people in shelters.

“The homeless system in general has seen a drop in utilization, compared to last year. I think part of it is people might be doubled up, or they might even be living outdoors, and they’re less inclined to even show up at a shelter to inquire because of fear of COVID,” he said.

Allen said with the moratorium on evictions and utility disconnections, the HOI United Way has received fewer 211 calls for housing needs, which translates into less referrals for homeless service providers.

On top of that, he said, the COVID-19 situation in the Tri-County area only recently started ramping up.

Plus, not everyone who agreed to a hotel stay felt comfortable in that environment.

“A number of them just ended up not wanting to stay there, because it kind of operated like a health care facility—there are no visitors, there’s medical staff coming in,” he said. “I think some of them just preferred to be in the shelter.”

Allen said a few of the nine participants were placed in permanent housing, while others returned to wherever they were staying before. All participants, having been flagged as high-risk are now higher up on the list for housing placement under the continuum’s "Coordinated Entry" list.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.