Chicago is ending its contract with an upscale hotel to house homeless residents

Hotel Julian
Chicagoan Steven Powell stands outside Hotel Julian in downtown Chicago, where he’s been staying for the past few months as he awaits permanent housing from the city. Mariah Woelfel / WBEZ
Hotel Julian
Chicagoan Steven Powell stands outside Hotel Julian in downtown Chicago, where he’s been staying for the past few months as he awaits permanent housing from the city. Mariah Woelfel / WBEZ

Chicago is ending its contract with an upscale hotel to house homeless residents

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If you ask residents of Hotel Julian about their stay at the upscale hotel the city has been leasing as a homeless shelter during the pandemic, many of them will undoubtedly mention the luxurious flat screen TV included in the room.

“I like a lot of the cable channels,” hotel resident Ricky Young said, laughing.

But excitement about HBO or Showtime will likely come last in a long list of benefits residents say are exclusive to this hotel-shelter model: security, a private room, the ability to shower every day, a bed bug-free mattress, peace of mind, quiet.

Contending with pandemic capacity limits at congregate shelters, the city has been renting 175 rooms at Hotel Julian on downtown Michigan Avenue since February 2021. About 450 people have come through its doors since, according to the city. Chicago officials have touted increased stability, better mental health outcomes and quicker transitions to permanent housing among participants, who stay in their private room for an average of about four months.

But come the end of this week, after several previous contract renewals, the stay at Hotel Julian for Chicago’s homeless population will end for good.

“Our goal is to make sure that everybody transitions to either housing or another shelter placement … and there are options identified for everyone at this time,” said Maura McCauley, a deputy commissioner with the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS).

In an interview, McCauley and DFSS Commissioner Brandie Knazze said Hotel Julian was always meant to be a temporary Band-Aid during the pandemic, and that the city no longer has the option to renew its contract with the hotel, which will open back up to the public.

But its closure feels unacceptable to some advocates and residents themselves as they await permanent housing.

“If you’ve ever been where I done been, you’d be so happy to be in here”

Pat Ricia, who says she’s been homeless since the death of her two sons led to a drug addiction three decades ago, has been staying at Hotel Julian for a month. She told WBEZ she’s regained dignity given that she had the ability to shower daily and sleep with a closed door.

“I want to say – if there’s anything you can do to convince them to stay open … to help more people who probably feel that all they need is somewhere to go, to put their things, and they’ll do better,” said Ricia, who said she’s supposed to get keys to a permanent home this week.

“If you’ve ever been where I done been, you’d be so happy to be here,” she said.

Resident Steven Powell, who came to Hotel Julian from the Pacific Mission Garden shelter, said he’s still waiting to find out what’s next.

“I’m going to tell you the truth, I enjoy that room because I got a big old TV, big old bed, a washroom with a commode … and a shower. Now I am satisfied with where I am … but when I leave here on the 28th, what’s going to happen?”

As of Friday, Powell, Ricia and Young were three of 117 people still living in Hotel Julian. The city is trying to place all hotel residents into either permanent housing or a new shelter before the end of the month.

Young said he’s been homeless for about two years and moved into Hotel Julian after a short stint at one of the city’s previous pop-up shelters at a school on the South Side. He’s apprehensive as the end of the month nears.

“I’m very nervous,” he said. “I’m nervous because I’m here, I’m still here and I’m not sure how long it’s going to take me to move into my situation. But [the case workers at] Hotel Julian [are] helping me get an apartment. It’s all in the making – I’m hoping I’ll be there before it closes down.”

“Hotel Julian should be permanent”

Meanwhile, advocates who have seen the direct benefits of Hotel Julian on the homeless residents they help fear many of those 117 people will end up back on the streets and sleeping on the CTA.

“Today I’m trying to get someone into a shelter – there’s no beds. There’s not a bed in the city,” said Jared Flippen, a case worker at Above and Beyond Family Recovery Center, an outpatient substance treatment center.

“Until that changes, Hotel Julian should be permanent,” added Kaitlyn Flynn, another case worker at Above and Beyond.

DFSS has worked to increase shelter capacity by 400 beds compared to previous points in the pandemic, according to a presentation from December. They’ve done so by working with the Chicago Department of Public Health and by matching shelters with health care providers to advise on how to safely increase bed capacity.

But beds are still in short supply, according to advocates. In a statement, DFSS said by March 1, it will still be short 242 city-funded beds, compared to pre-pandemic levels, but that “non-DFSS funded shelter partners are adding more beds to their programs” as well.

Still, even if residents are able to get into a congregate shelter, Flippen and Flynn fear the progress their clients made at Hotel Julian – such as showing up to substance abuse meetings consistently and on time – will start to slip, due to the lack of stability in congregate settings.

“People that go through congregate shelters have really high turnover,” Flippen said. “A lot of times clients that stay in a shelter are kicked out, or they move out on their own because … going through homelessness is a very traumatic experience, anyone that’s living in a shelter is stressed, agitated, tired. And so fights are extremely common, which leads to a lot of our clients getting kicked out. The value of having privacy makes it so that it’s a much more calm environment. So there’s less turnover.”

Flippen said the fact that people are more likely to stay longer at Hotel Julian makes it easier to contact them in order to connect them with services, such as housing or health care.

City officials, too, have testified that Hotel Julian has made it easier to get people into permanent housing quicker. In total, 106 out of 450 people have moved into permanent housing from Hotel Julian, with another 66 on their way as of Friday, according to DFSS.

City eyes hotel-motel model for the future

This re-housing outcome, touted as a major achievement by the department, is part of the reason the city is now looking to expand on the hotel-motel shelter model.

“We are in total support of non-congregate shelter models,” McCauley said. “There’s a lot of studies being released now about the better outcomes and better protection for people when they have the configuration of their own individual rooms and bathrooms.”

McCauley and Knazze said the department is tapping into funds from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s recently passed budget they say allocated $20 million for infrastructure upgrades to existing shelters. That, they said, will allow them to hopefully change existing congregate shelters into shelters with private spaces for residents. They did not provide a timeline for that vision.

More immediately, the city has plans to test another hotel-motel model, ideally soon after the contract with Hotel Julian ends. In November, DFSS released a request for proposals for a social service agency to run a service program out of a Chicago hotel or motel for the next year.

Applicants had to propose a plan for how they would lease out or acquire a block of 15 or more hotel rooms, feed residents three times a day, offer on-site support services and staff the hotel around the clock, so that residents would not turn to hotel workers with questions about city services.

That program was expected to begin on Jan. 1, but officials did not provide an updated timeline, instead saying “that will be coming up pretty soon, where the award announcement will be made.”

In a statement, DFSS said the “timeline shifted because the department conducted oral presentations with the applicants and needed more review time.”

Bigger picture, McCauley said, is a plan for the city to start acquiring its own hotel or hotel-like facilities to serve as non-congregate homeless shelters during the pandemic and potentially beyond.

“We want to move from leasing hotels to purchasing them,” she said. “And in some cases, using them for shelter in the short-term while we’re dealing with impacts of the pandemic, but also redeveloping them to permanent supportive housing.”

“We’ve started to look at locations, but you know there’s a process to that,” Knazze added.

“And so we’re going through that process now.”

Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.