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Living on the Streets of Chicago in the Winter

When the polar vortex hit Chicago, it was the homeless who were hit the worst. While most of us stayed in the warmth of our homes, cars, or offices on those days, thousands of homeless, unable to find space in emergency shelters or warming centers, were left on their own, to defend against the cold, and possible death.

The large tent city at Ruble and Roosevelt sits off the highway and offers no barrier against the cold winds. In other parts of the city, the homeless hunker down under bridges and viaducts. They often use their limited funds for the warmth of CTA trains and sleep near heating vents. It’s pure survival mode.

And, when there is not enough room in shelters and warming centers, the homeless turn to emergency rooms at hospitals where they can get care and a warm meal.

Here is what the homeless face during Chicago’s frigid winter months:

  • Hypothermia starts when your body temperature drops below 95 degrees, and it is life threatening when body temperature gets below 85 degrees.

  • When it is wet or windy, the risk for hypothermia greatly increases

  • They risk frost bite, which can occur in a matter of minutes on fingers, toes, ears and noses

Homelessness in Chicago continues at crisis levels:

  • There are still over 9,000 people who we know are homeless and 25% of Chicagoans are at risk of becoming homeless due to being severely housing cost burdened (spending over 50% of their income on rent).

  • In 2018, over 1,000 people become homeless for the first time every month in Chicago.

  • The shortage of affordable housing in Chicago is at a critical point and is having a negative economic impact on businesses in the city.

Meanwhile, we saw the best of Chicagoans and their Big Shoulders:

  • One Good Samaritan paid for 70 homeless people to spend four days each in a hotel room, probably keeping them from dying in a tent. However, that tent may be gone when they return

  • Individuals purchased and handed out blankets

  • Others offered free rides to warming shelters

  • Some braved the cold to deliver bagged meals and kits

This is the best of humanity - helping people in need when they are in crises.

The polar vortex has passed, but the crisis is never over, leaving the homeless forgotten, again.

So now what?

Winter is not over yet, and temperatures at night are predicted to feel like single digits over the next month.

What you can do to help someone today:

  • Give them something tangible:

  • Hand out “space blankets” (those aluminum looking blankets that runners get after marathons) - they are small, inexpensive, and a great way to retain heat.

  • Some say this is controversial but buy them a tent. It will keep them out of the elements and may save their life.

  • Go out and buy new or give them extra coats, hats or gloves you don’t use or were going to donate.

  • Call for help: If the person seems disoriented, slurring their speech, or non-responsive call 911 and tell them where the person is and what you see.

  • Refrain from buying them coffee or alcohol: Giving someone warm coffee may not be the best idea because caffeine causes you to lose body heat faster. Alcohol can numb the body making the person unaware of just how cold it is and whether they have frost bite.

  • Treat the person with compassion: What would you do if it was your mom? People can be stubborn and proud sometimes. Offer to call 311 for them. Doing so will connect the person to a shelter or at least assess whether the person is in immediate trouble.

  • Respect the individual’s decision: It can be difficult to understand their reasoning, but if an individual does not want to go to a shelter, they probably have a good reason why.

  • Get involved: Many organizations in the city, including Renaissance Social Services, work diligently every day to help the city’s most vulnerable find and keep affordable housing. Get involved by joining a board, facilitate a drive for household items, or make a donation to help them continue their work in outreach, services, and locating housing.

We are changing lives one home a time.

There is a long-term solution to homelessness that we know is proven to be effective - affordable housing and supportive services for people with disabilities.

It takes a village to end homelessness: As housing becomes more and more expensive, Chicagoans need to push for more affordable housing and living options for everyone in the city. This not only helps the homeless, but those on the verge of homelessness or living in poverty, ultimately helping all of Chicago thrive in this fantastic city we call home.

There are many gateways to homelessness, with mental health and trauma issues being common reasons. Along with providing services that address the individual’s specific needs, compassion goes a long way to helping individuals find their way to a home.

And that’s how we can all help the homeless in our city, with compassion and understanding.

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