While most people began preparing in mid-March to shelter-in-place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NIU Alumnus Ryan Dowd (JD and MPA ’03) made a different decision. He left his home and moved into Hesed House, the second largest homeless shelter in Illinois, located in Aurora. For those who know him and his dedication to the homeless, this choice was no surprise.
As the Executive Director for Hesed House for over eighteen years, Ryan’s career has focused on working with vulnerable populations, especially the homeless. He started volunteering there at age 13 and continued throughout college and law school. He wrote the book, The Librarian’s Guide to Homeless: An Empathy-Driven Approach to Solving Problems, Preventing Conflict, and Serving Everyone. He also consulted with actor Emilio Estevez on a movie addressing homelessness called The Public.
When the United States was anticipating the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ryan and his staff knew they would need to be innovative and proactive to keep the 250+ “guests” (how they refer to the residents) of Hesed safe. They opened up a third shelter in a warehouse to increase social distancing between guests, especially ones with compromised immune systems. A donor provided them with a thermal imaging thermometer to monitor temperatures. They navigated their jobs while using masks, eye-wear and other equipment.
When the first cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed at Hesed on April 8, Ryan and his staff refused to give up. They needed to find a new space where guests and staff could maintain proper social distancing to prevent the spread of the disease. They collaborated with local, county and state leaderships to find a solution. On April 11, guests staying in the family shelter were moved into a hotel. Two days later, the Kane County Sheriff’s Office helped move an additional 200 staff and guests of Hesed to a hotel. Now, all these individuals can practice social distancing.
On April 13, the Kane County Sheriff’s Office helped move more than 200 staff and guests of Hesed to a hotel where they be able to practice social distancing. Dowd and many members of his staff are living in the hotel and working around the clock to care for the guests. Since he moved into Hesed in mid-March, Ryan has been resourceful, updating the community during daily videos with the current needs of the shelter as well as recent setbacks and triumphs.
Ryan credits his NIU education to helping him face these challenges. “I think the main way that NIU prepared me for this was that it taught me how to emotionally and intellectually manage a deluge of work without getting overwhelmed. In law school, there is more than 24 hours of work that you should be doing a day, and you don’t have the luxury of seizing up. Same thing here. And, of course, NIU taught me how to advocate for the rights of others. That has come in pretty handy working with all the different government agencies, nonprofits and other groups involved.”
NIU is extremely proud of Ryan. He has done so much to help care for society’s most vulnerable and he continually supports the NIU community. The NIU Law Health Advocacy Clinic has operated onsite at Hesed House since 2014 due to his support. He spends time mentoring students and serving as an example of how a career can be dedicated to helping those most in need.