Keeping the homeless sheltered and safe during COVID-19 spread

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Thursday, March 26, 2020

A guest unpacks his things for the night at the Franciscan Outreach shelter on Nov. 6, 2012. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

To read this article in Spanish, click here.

Every night of the year, Franciscan Outreach serves 382 men and women at three shelters throughout Chicago. The homeless are one of the most vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to keep them healthy and protected has called for new ways to serve them, according to Richard Ducatenzeiler, the non-profit’s executive director.

Staff at Franciscan Outreach began planning how to best serve its guests as soon as the news broke that the novel coronavirus was spreading across the United States. They worked with the City of Chicago and other partners to determine the best way they could serve and stem the possible spread of the virus at their shelters, two of which are in North Lawndale, with one in Pilsen.

“As guidelines started coming down, we began to realize we really couldn’t implement a lot of these measures because people are just so close to one another. And we really couldn’t isolate people that are exhibiting any kinds of symptoms,” Ducatenzeiler said.

Inside shelters, beds usually are set up close together to maximize capacity. That makes it difficult to maintain social distancing.

“We started thinking about how to better channel individuals when they start exhibiting symptoms or would test positive, where would they go afterwards,” Ducatenzeiler said. “One of the big things we discovered is that if we didn’t do anything right away to try to decompress our shelters, it would spread almost within two weeks among everybody within our larger shelter.”

Decompressing meant working with partners to find another location where some guests could be sheltered for the time being. On March 22 and 23, Franciscan Outreach moved 122 men out of its Harrison and Annex shelters into a nearby YMCA building. Twenty-three more guests from another organization moved into the YMCA site, and the Salvation Army is providing all meals there.

In normal times, only one of the shelters operates 24 hours a day. At the other two, guests usually leave in the morning and return in the evening. All of the shelters now are operating 24 hours a day and the guests are asked not to leave, if possible.

A group of eight full-time volunteers from Germany had to return home because of the coronavirus and some regular employees are deemed high-risk by primary care physicians and must work from home.

“The challenge has been trying to staff all of our locations, operating 24 hours, three shifts at each location, at least two or three people and trying to coordinate all of the additional meals,” he said.

Rush University Medical Center, Lawndale Christian Health Center and municipal departments are helping the agency address the health needs of guests.

“We know things are still probably going to get worse as far as the number of cases that continue to increase. We’re starting to see more cases among the homeless population now. We’re operating on a lockdown basis essentially,” Ducatenzeiler said. “We’re doing our best just trying to contain the amount of exposure for our guests.”

Medical professionals have helped the organization put together screening protocols and provided medical equipment and makeshift isolation drapery for anyone who is coughing or awaiting transport to the hospital. Some medical staff also visit the shelters to provide direct care. 

But there is a limited number of thermometers and screening is done mostly by self-reporting and watching the guests to see how they are doing.

Franciscan Outreach also established incentive pay for frontline staff to show appreciation for their willingness to come in under the circumstances.

“For the most part, the morale of the staff is good,” Ducatenzeiler said. “For our guests, I think some obviously are a little frustrated at not being able to go outside.”

If guests leave, staff can’t guarantee there will be space for them when they return.

“We’re trying to lift their spirits as much as possible,” Ducatenzeiler said. “I know some are just appreciative that we’re continuing to provide them services and shelter under the circumstances. Some said they thought they would just be completely abandoned because staff would be afraid to come in and get sick. We’re doing our best.”

Ducatenzeiler and the staff of Franciscan Outreach have heard of other social-service agencies closing down during this time because of staffing concerns, funding and other reasons. They are planning to stay open for the foreseeable future. He asked that people remember those facing homelessness at this time.

“Individuals experiencing homelessness are already forgotten and, a lot of times, not thought about,” he said. “Under these circumstances everyone is kind of under self-preservation. Please continue to have them in your thoughts and continue to support us.”

To donate or to learn more, visit



  • homelessness
  • coronavirus

Related Articles