Area organizations work to help McHenry County homeless population during coronavirus pandemic

Officials weigh in on procedures during COVID-19 pandemic

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Area organizations and McHenry County are working to provide resources to the local homeless population, even amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Sam Tenuto, co-CEO of the Pioneer Center for Human Services, which operates a homeless shelter in Woodstock through its PADS program, said the shelter still is open 24/7.

However, there are changes that have been put into place during this period. The shelter currently is not taking anyone new, and it is keeping one room open for quarantine.

“We’re focusing right now on the safety and welfare of the current people at the shelter and our staff,” Tenuto said. “We’re doing our best to follow the guidelines from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the orders from the governor.”

The shelter also is not allowing any visitors, and it is transporting guests from the shelter only for emergencies, essential community stops for care such as medical appointments and work.

“While they’re with us, just like we’re doing in our own homes, we’re trying to limit our ... exposure to other people in the community,” Tenuto said. “The people that we serve at the shelter have been very supportive during this period. And all of them are doing their best to move into a more stable housing situation, and they’re also doing their best to be a good community member and help keep other people safe, too.”

Tenuto said staff will complete check-ins with the people they serve, and the shelter is making sure its staff members do not have symptoms of illness when they leave and arrive at the shelter.

“We’re all surviving in challenging times,” Tenuto said.

Matt Kostecki, executive director of Home of the Sparrow, said his establishment still is running essential services during the pandemic, and it still has staff and clients working at the shelter. However, similar to the PADS shelter, Home of the Sparrow is holding off on taking in new people in need right now.

Home of the Sparrow operates a shelter in McHenry, in addition to seven Sparrow’s Nest Thrift Stores and Donation Centers as well as Community Threads Thrift Store in Arlington Heights.

The organization is taking extra precautions, such as wiping down the shelter and making sure all workers have gloves and masks.

Kostecki said Home of the Sparrow also is trying to maintain normal stress levels.

“It is a very stressful time. I think it’s because of the unknown,” Kostecki said. “But I think across the shelter, with clients and staff, I think it’s been a pretty positive mind frame.”

As far as social distancing goes, Tenuto said it can be tricky in a space such as the shelter, comparing it to households that have a big family.

“We educate on the 6 feet [social distancing rule],” he said. “We are vigilant with the education and communication.”

Still, Tenuto said he is impressed with how everyone at the shelter has been listening and cooperating with the new rules. “[They’re] in good spirits,” he said.

Although Pioneer Center is not allowing new intakes, people who are homeless and need resources still can call the PADS shelter for references, Tenuto said.

The homeless shelter in Woodstock has not reported any COVID-19 cases, he said.

McHenry County currently is using motel vouchers to allow people who are not able to be admitted into the shelter to have a place at local motels in the area.

McHenry County Community Development Director Hans Mach said church sites where people would stay had to be closed because there was a congregation of too many people.

"We ended up intervening and placing all of those individuals in motels through motel vouchers," Mach said. "Then, what we've been doing is we've been ensuring that they've been

The whole point of the motels is to help separate the individuals, he said.

“Obviously, we don’t want to keep them in a congregate setting where a lot of people were clustered together,” Mach said. “That’s a very vulnerable population.”

The county received $102,000 in motel voucher funding from the Illinois Department of Human Services to reimburse these costs.

With the help of local restaurants, the county has been providing lunch and dinner to people living in motels.

The food is going to the motels at designated lunch and dinner times, and people living in the motels have refrigerators and microwaves in their rooms.

A Community Development Block grant is used to pay for the food.

Restaurants being used include The Cottage and Three Chef’s Catering in Crystal Lake, a locally owned Subway and others.

But they rotate the local restaurants, Mach said.

“We’re giving them roughly a week at a time to provide the meals,” he said. “So it’s enabling them to get some business in this rough time.”

The county also has been working with community partners to start rapidly rehousing people who are homeless.

Mach said more effectively deploying state and local grant funds has helped finance the effort.

In the long term, Mach said, county officials intend to work with the McHenry County Housing Authority and other partners in the community to obtain the units where people are placed.

Some landlords at larger complexes have helped homeless individuals by placing them in apartments, Mach said, and Home of the Sparrow also has come forward with furniture.

“One of the things that, as we’re looking forward, though, is we realized that we need to stop the flow of new homeless coming into the system at this time, too,” Mach said.

Even amid the pandemic, Pioneer Center is in the process of constructing a new 70-bed, 24/7 facility in McHenry.

“That’s going to be a big solution for our challenge right now, to serving the entire homeless population,” Tenuto said. “It’s deemed an essential project for community, and we’re full steam ahead.”

The goal is to have it open by the end of May or June 1, Tenuto said.

“We’re excited about the shelter. We’re focused right now on the safety of the people we serve and our staff, and we still are a shelter made possible with community support,” Tenuto said. “So we still welcome, and we still need the generosity of the community.”