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During pandemic, swanky Chicago hotel has become a haven for people living on the street, others at risk

Alice Yin and Cecilia Reyes, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Home and Consumer News

CHICAGO -- Joeal Hamlin eased himself into a plank position on the carpet, resting the weight of his body on his forearms, elbows and toes. Sweat dampened his cropped gray hair.

His goal was 125 pushups, done in bunches of 25. Up, down. Up, down. Next were 75 squats atop the chair in his hotel room downtown. Up, down. Up, down.

The 66-year-old couldn't do this just a month ago. He believed he was going to die when he overdosed on drugs in March. He recovered but became homeless, bouncing around friends' houses before showing up with a cart of belongings at a West Side shelter.

In mid-April, Hamlin was offered a ninth-story room inside the pricey Hotel One Sixty-Six Magnificent Mile, where the Lawndale Christian Health Center oversees a makeshift isolation facility for people who are homeless. Hamlin has gained a needed 20 pounds since moving in. During smoke breaks on the rooftop, he enjoys views of the skyline while chatting with new friends -- from 6 feet away.

"I actually was leading to a depression, anxiety," Hamlin said. "I felt I could do better for myself, but I couldn't do it by myself. With the help of Lawndale Christian Health, I'm not by myself anymore."

Hamlin's new living quarters are part of the city's effort to shelter those who have nowhere to go as the death toll from COVID-19 in Illinois tops 3,000. The city has rented nearly 400 rooms in two downtown hotels to isolate people considered to be at high-risk during the pandemic.

 

To date, 251 people experiencing homelessness have stayed in the isolation and quarantine hotel rooms and given free meals, with 152 guests still in the hotel. It's an evolving experiment that Thomas Huggett -- lead doctor of the Lawndale Christian Health Center's medical team at Hotel One Sixty-Six -- hopes will transform how society cares for such people.

"There are stay-at-home orders," Huggett said. "What does that actually mean for people who don't have a home? From our angle, housing is health care. If we can really learn through these liminal times, then perhaps we can make some long-lasting, positive changes."

Hamlin had never been homeless before. He was living in his parents' basement in Austin when he overdosed on heroin laced with the powerful painkiller fentanyl in March. "I thought it was the end of my time," he said.

He recovered, but his mother and father, both 84, contracted coronavirus, so he couldn't go back home after his discharge.

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