Winter looming for Chicago’s homeless

By Kaley Fowler

Chicago’s homeless population will soon face extreme temperatures and exposure to the elements, causing shelters citywide to increase services and open their doors to larger crowds.

Some shelters have begun collecting additional blankets, clothing and food to prepare for increased occupancy. According to Kevin Morrissey, director of development at the Franciscan House of Mary & Joseph, the public should express greater concern for the homeless during the winter months.

“I hate to not have people be concerned about the homeless population every day because certainly there are dangers on the streets but the physical dangers are much more apparent in the winter,” he said.

Morrissey explained that limited space means shelters fill up quickly.

“There are more people who are turned away during extreme weather periods [than during any other time of year],” he said. “Certainly, we try [to] suggest other places [for them to go], and we work with the city, particularly in the winter, to get people off the streets and into our and other facilities.”

Although the shelter must often turn people away, Morrissey said it makes an effort to keep the facility open during the day, which is atypical of many shelters.

While a number of shelters sometimes have to close their doors because of space limitations, some simply don’t. The shelter run by the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness makes room for everyone seeking refuge, according to organization administrator Sue Heiss.

“On bad weather days, we have a policy of turning no one away,” Heiss said, adding that the city distributes an additional 200 emergency beds to shelters citywide during the winter to accommodate the influx of patrons.

Heiss explained that the city’s Department of Human Services coordinates with police, fire stations and hospitals to transport people living on the streets to shelters during dangerous conditions. Homeless people are also encouraged to dial 311 for assistance when weather conditions are too severe.

“The most important thing is that somebody who is not sheltered on a winter night can lose their life overnight,” Heiss said. “People who are homeless don’t have access to weather reports and news, so they aren’t aware of how bad the weather’s going to get.”

Heiss said death and physical injuries are quite common for those living on the streets during the winter. Her warning was not lost on Walter Thomas, a homeless man whose friends died on the streets last year.

Thomas, who has lived on the streets for eight years, said two of his friends sought shelter near a water pipe overnight last winter. The pipe burst while they were asleep, and flooded them with water, freezing both of them solid. Thomas said he saw firemen chiseling the dead bodies loose from the pavement the next morning.

Thomas said there are ways to survive the winter, however.

“You need just a little bit of heat,” he said. “Find you a little heat, drink a lot of warm liquids and eat a lot.”

When he can’t find a spot in one of the city’s warming stations, Thomas said he sleeps in a cardboard box filled with blankets.

To survive extremely cold nights, he finds HVAC vents that blow warm air from downtown highrises.

Morrissey said the best way to help the homeless is to raise awareness about their struggles and encourage public support of anti-homelessness efforts.

“We would certainly like to see it get to the point where homelessness is ended rather than just managed and reduced,” Morrissey said. “Obviously it’s becoming more and more apparent that it’s not going to be done without intensive case management services to get people to the point where they can hold a job and keep a permanent home.”