Caring for Those with Nowhere to Shelter in Place

May 5, 2020

At a Chicago-area Salvation Army gym – where just a couple months ago students and locals enjoyed pickup basketball games – 88 cots dot the floor in a giant grid, all spaced at least six feet apart. Some hold bodies – sleeping, reading, or just contemplating the strange turn of events that brought them here.

These men are the healthy overflow from City homeless shelters. With new social distancing standards, each of Chicago’s existing shelters, many of them already at capacity, can’t house as many individuals right now. One of the City of Chicago’s solutions was approaching The Salvation Army, an organization that already serves homeless individuals throughout the area and whose facilities offer the space and kitchen facilities to temporarily house a group of people.

Of course the Army readily agreed. This is one of two Army facilities in the area offering cots, meals, face masks or cloth coverings, bathrooms, showers, and a physical space to shelter in place while we all ride out COVID-19.

“This is an opportunity to reach the men that might otherwise not seek shelter,” said the officer at this Army location, the address kept confidential at the City’s request to protect the privacy and safety of the clients. “We have the chance to show God's love to hurting people and to introduce them to alternatives to their lifestyle. We want to give them hope and the support they need to change their circumstances.”

Riding Out the Pandemic

Down the middle of the gym, two rows of tables flanked by folding chairs divide the room in half. These tables are where the clients eat their meals and get their temperature taken every day to ensure none of them are getting – or spreading – the coronavirus. Several men sit on the chairs, watching an episode of House on the big-screen TV at one end of the room. One of these men is Christopher.

The coronavirus was just the latest tragedy in a run of two very bad years for Christopher. He lost his father two years ago, then his baby brother last year. The latter was unexpected, caused by medical malpractice during a routine surgery. “I didn’t deal with it too good,” he admitted.

Struggling with his grief led him to relapse in his drug addiction, which put his life in a downward spiral. The relapse ended the relationship he was in as well as his job as a substance abuse counselor, both of which led him to become homeless. The shelter he’d been staying in sent him here when the coronavirus stretched them beyond capacity.

“The Salvation Army provides a good service for people in need,” he said. “It’s one of the best organizations available. There’s room for a person who wants to get his life back on track.” And room for a person to ride out a pandemic while he figures out his next steps.

“We have sent seven men into substance abuse treatment. And we have helped a dozen men with serious health issues obtain life-saving treatment,” said the officer at this Army facility. “The best times have been the quiet one-on-one conversations with scared people who just needed to talk about their fears. They needed encouragement, prayer, and someone to take time with them. When a person realizes that people care about him, his demeanor changes. The men let their guard down, they help each other, they share resources and information, we become a family.” 

This makeshift family has even enjoyed a sit-down Easter dinner, movie nights, and homemade chocolate-chip cookies from friends of the officers.

The Power of Genuine Concern

Ronald is one of the men hoping for life change in the middle of this gymnasium, in the middle of this pandemic. Before landing here, he spent eight months on the street, receiving most of his meals from a Salvation Army mobile feeding truck that frequents areas with homeless encampments. “The guys on the food truck are great givers. I thank God for them,” he said. “But The Salvation Army is bigger than human personalities; it’s a divine organization.”

Ronald’s been at this temporary shelter just over a week and says he spent the first four to five days sleeping. “This is the most comfortable bed I’ve slept on in a while,” he said, nodding to his cot.

“I was in rough shape. I’d bottomed out. Headed for death out there in one form or another – financial, physical, spiritual. But The Salvation Army saves you,” he said. Ronald also credits the good sleep to finally knowing he’s safe. “It’s great to have food on a regular basis. To be able to eat, drink water, and use the bathroom in a human way. I knew God had better for me.”

With these basic human needs met, Ronald is able to focus on the future. He hopes to get into a substance abuse program, and knows the Army will help him. “I feel their genuine concern for me, even as I’m struggling to have it for myself.”

Many of the clients have felt that loving concern. “All our senior citizens were offered a hotel for the crisis. The City wanted to place all at-risk folks in private rooms and offered rooms in a nice hotel,” the Army officer said. “About 20 of our seniors went, but five refused to leave their cots in our gym because they felt so loved here. They had not been made to feel loved for a long time – a real bed, TV, and private bathroom were no competition for the love they have been given.”

A Wake-Up Call

Oscar was on his way to an Army Adult Rehabilitation Center in Waukegan when “the coronavirus stopped me, period,” he said. Life ground to a standstill, and he wound up at another shelter before landing here.

“I was selling and doing drugs. Killing myself slowly,” he said. “And then God gave me a wake-up call.” Oscar got held up. Two guys put a gun to his head and took his money and drugs.

Spending time in this facility, he’s had plenty of time to think about how awful that incident could have turned out. “I’m ready to leave my past behind. I’ve been in and out of treatment programs. I’m so tired of that. I want to get clean. I know what it takes. And if I get that chance again, I won’t look back.”

“The Salvation Army is saving my life,” Oscar said. “God brought me here for a reason.”

Learn about all the ways The Salvation Army is responding to the coronavirus – as well as how you can help – at salarmychicago.org/coronavirus


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For tax purposes: The Salvation Army Metropolitan Division EIN is 36-2167910.


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