Cook County commissioners support a plan to spend nearly $14 million to buy two hotels for the unhoused population in the suburbs.
The county has already been helping to pay the rent for organizations that operate the former hotels as shelters. One is in north suburban Evanston and the other is in west suburban Oak Park.
During a County Board committee meeting Wednesday, county officials and executives who run the hotel-based shelters said buying the buildings would help make the shelters permanent and is a part of a larger county strategy to address homelessness that was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the virus struck, and traditional shelters that mostly functioned only at night in church basements were closed, other shelter providers “scrambled to rent empty hotels to keep clients in our community safe,” said Lynda Schueler, CEO of Housing Forward, which leased the Write Inn in Oak Park.
She argued this model — housing people in hotels while offering them services such as providing medical care and helping them find a job — has become a “game-changer.” The majority of people who stayed at the hotel shelter in the last three years have found permanent housing, Schueler said.
Renting, instead of buying the buildings, also is more expensive, shelter providers and county leaders said.
Commissioners approved the measures unanimously, but some questioned why the county wasn’t moving faster to buy a hotel in the south suburbs, where a large portion of the county’s unhoused population stays, according to shelter providers.
“In my district, I have babies sleeping on floors. I have children sleeping on cardboard boxes, families that are sleeping in garages,” said Commissioner Stanley Moore, who represents parts of Chicago’s South Side and south suburbs. “My issue comes when we’re spending this type of money in communities that don’t share the same amount of homeless population that we have.”
Carl Wolf, executive director of Respond Now in south suburban Chicago Heights, which provides food and housing services in the region, said 10 out of the 11 communities with the most calls to the county’s suburban homelessness prevention call center live in the south suburbs.
The nonprofit South Suburban PADS now provides 100 to 150 beds in hotel-based shelter beds every night, with a wait list of more than 100 people, Wolf said.
Karl Bradley, deputy director of housing at Cook County, said there are hotels that are used as shelters in the south suburbs. That was news to Moore.
“Over three years we should have been able to refer people to these agencies that refer them to you for housing, but we don’t even know who the referring agencies are or who the hotels are that are doing this in our districts,” Moore said.
“Commissioner, you’ve highlighted our need to expand our marketing,” Bradley responded.
While the county still wants to buy a hotel in the south suburbs to become a permanent shelter, Bradley outlined some challenges. Some suburban governments don’t want to lose the tax base they generate from having hotels in town, for example.
Susan Campbell, director of the county’s department of planning and development, listened to commissioners’ frustrations and emphasized the process to buy hotels can be slow. She said the county has at least $28 million to spend on this effort.
For now, the county would spend about $7 million in federal pandemic dollars to buy the Margarita Inn in Evanston. An organization called Connections for the Homeless has leased the building since 2021 and run a shelter there with 46 rooms. People stay on average around seven months.
The county also would spend about $6.5 million to buy the Write Inn in Oak Park. Housing Forward currently uses the building as a shelter with 65 beds. That includes the county’s medical respite program on the first floor for patients who are recuperating.
Commissioners still need to approve the plans during a full board meeting.
Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County for WBEZ.