A UW alumnus cares for Chicago homeless during COVID-19 pandemic

Dr. Thomas Huggett helped Chicago convert a hotel to house elderly or otherwise at-risk people amid the pandemic; he also lives there.

MADISON, WI (April 24, 2020) — Dr. Thomas Huggett, a UW alumnus, is working to save Chicago’s homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic, and his efforts caught the attention of Wall Street Journal reporter Joe Barrett and photographer Joshua Lott.

Barrett says the 60-year-old physician with Lawndale Christian Health Center heads a medical team that has helped Chicago convert a former boutique hotel just steps from the fancy shops on the city’s Magnificent Mile into a shelter for the most at-risk people experiencing homelessness.
The target is to house those over age 60, or 55 with underlying medical conditions. Right now, they have 137 residents, and they aim to eventually have 174.

Wearing only a thin surgical mask, Dr. Huggett made an unusual offer to folks in a crowded homeless shelter on the city’s West Side. “Because you are at risk of getting really sick, we are offering you a hotel room, but you have to stay inside. You can’t go in the hallway. You can’t go out for a smoke. You’ll have your own TV and remote control. You’ll have a nice bed and we’ll bring you three meals a day. We’ll bring your medication to you,” he said. Then he threw out his final sweetener. “I’ll be staying in the hotel, too.”

Dr. Huggett grew up on a farm in Wisconsin and was the first member of his family to go to college. After getting a degree in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he went on to medical school at the University of Chicago and later got a master’s degree in public health at Johns Hopkins University.

After practicing for a few years in Wisconsin, he joined the Peace Corps and ran a 200-bed hospital in Malawi in East Africa during the AIDS crisis. Often he was the only doctor at the hospital, doing surgery on patients with a 15 percent chance of being HIV-positive and no sustainable treatment at the time, he said.

“I understand risks,” Dr. Huggett told the Wall Street Journal. He is a churchgoing Catholic, who says everyone can’t be Mother Teresa, but we can aspire to do our part based on our talents. “We have to help our brothers and sisters, that’s kind of where I’m coming from.”

The Wall Street Journal story follows Dr. Huggett through a typical day of treating COVID-19 patients at various locations and then returning to the hotel around 4:30 p.m. to see patients there. During one visit, he not only treated a 69-year-old former factory worker, who had tested positive for the coronavirus, he also helped plunge his broken toilet. At 10 p.m., Dr. Huggett got a call from the emergency room where a homeless man he had treated was ready to discharge, which meant he might be back out on the street. Dr. Huggett went over and walked the man back to the hotel. He turned in at 11 p.m.

The Wall Street Journal says the hotel is one way Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration is trying to close the gap between rich and poor that the pandemic has exposed. The virus is taking an outsize toll in black and minority communities. Some 60 percent of reported deaths have been among African Americans in a city where they make up 30 percent of the population. For the homeless population, the crowded sites where they shelter in place can be hotbeds of infection.

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Contact: Tod Pritchard, tod.pritchard@supportuw.org, 608-609-5217, @WisAlumni