Domestic violence prevention groups in Cook County are shifting victims to hotels from a dozen shelters where residents share kitchens, bathrooms, dining halls and other closed spaces ideal for spreading the deadly coronavirus.
The move, funded initially by a private foundation, could also provide some relief to hotels that have emptied out as people cancel travel plans and hole up in their homes.
“Cohabitating with people that you’re not related to can be a public-health risk,” said Amanda Pyron, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network, which runs the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline and other services. “We just can’t do enough social distancing in our shelters, the way they’re constructed, to make it safe for everyone.”
The 12 shelters are each getting $10,000 from Chicago-based Crown Family Philanthropies for the shift to hotels, according to domestic-violence groups.
The Illinois Department of Human Services is planning to support the effort “very soon,” DHS spokesman Patrick Laughlin said.
Advocates for domestic-violence victims say they expect the city of Chicago to step up as well, although a spokeswoman for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot did not immediately respond to questions about it.
Pyron said some shelters have begun shifting all their residents to hotels or other community-based housing but the foundation is allowing flexibility.
Joyce M. Coffee, executive director of Family Rescue, said the 36-bed shelter that her organization runs on Chicago’s South Side has been full for more than a week and that nearly half the occupants are children.
“That makes social distancing difficult,” Coffee said.
Coffee said Family Rescue will allow current residents to stay in the shelter until they no longer need the service but is planning to use the Crown money to house new clients in hotels and provide per-diem payments for food.
The plan is to “thin out” the shelter’s occupancy by not replacing departing residents until there are only 18 residents left, she said.
Coffee said she expects the need for domestic-violence shelters to soar as families hunker down in their homes.
“Because of the close quarters, the power differential and imbalance, the loss of employment, I expect domestic violence to spike,” Coffee said.
But Coffee said she is worried that victims will do all they can to avoid taking refuge in a shelter where they have to cohabitate with strangers.
“That’s probably the last place you would want to be with this virus out there,” Coffee said.
While hotels could be better settings for social distancing, they have not traditionally been the best places for keeping victims safe from abusers as they lack security personnel and protocols for those situations, according to Carol Gall, executive director of Sarah’s Inn, a domestic violence prevention agency based in west suburban Forest Park.
“When they’re populated by the general public, it can pose safety issues for victims and their families to stay there,” Gall said.
But hotels might be more willing to take steps to help protect victims, Gall said, now that the pandemic has left them desperate for business.
“The current situation does provide a leveraged opportunity for domestic-violence agencies to partner with hotels and ensure that there’s some proper safety measures put into place,” Gall said.