As libraries, restaurants and public buildings have closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, people experiencing homelessness have increasingly fewer places to seek shelter and safety. In the western suburbs, nonprofit agencies Housing Forward and BEDS Plus are opening emergency shelters to shield their clients during the ever-evolving coronavirus epidemic. 

“People who are homeless are among the most vulnerable population,” said Erik Johnson, Housing Forward’s director of development and communications. “People at great risk of homelessness are equally as vulnerable.”  

To prevent contracting and spreading the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has directed people to practice social distancing and self-isolation — nearly impossible to do without a stable living situation. 

“It’s critically important we respond effectively to this and figure out the ways we safeguard everyone’s protection to the maximum of our capacity,” said Johnson. 

Housing Forward operates a schedule of nightly shelters at rotating locations, serving people in Oak Park, Forest Park, Berwyn and Maywood. The current situation has prompted the program to come up with a more permanent alternative. 

“One of our shelter partners has generously opened up their location 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Johnson. 

Synagogue and shelter partner Oak Park Temple B’nai Abraham Zion, 1235 N. Harlem Ave., will house Housing Forward clients starting March 17 and effective until March 30.

“We’re thrilled that Oak Park Temple is working with us to provide shelter both daytime and nighttime,” Johnson said.

Oak Park Temple has enough space to give clients a wide berth and prevent them from coming too close into contact with each other.

“It allows us greater flexibility to provide the proper amount of social-distancing that’s being recommended by the CDC,” Johnson said. “We’re fortunate that the temple has two floors so that we are able to follow [Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s] guidelines of no more than 50 people in a room.”

For at least the next two weeks, all Housing Forward shelter operations will occur at Oak Park Temple.

“For Oak Park Temple to be able to step up in this way, in the middle of this pandemic, allows us to take the next steps we feel are so vitally important to meet the needs of our clients,” Johnson said. “We have immense gratitude for them.”

Housing Forward clients can also call 1-888-338-1744. Those who would like to volunteer with Housing Forward should call its main telephone number: 708-338-1724.

“It is our mission and our moral obligation to respond as vigorously as we can, while at the same time safeguarding the safety and protection of not only our clients, but our staff and volunteers,” Johnson said.

Housing Forward is anticipating a greater need for volunteers and welcomes healthy people to get involved.

 “We do need help,” said Johnson. “And we are so grateful for people who are willing to help us during this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.”