In frigid heartland, an outpouring of warmth

Why We Wrote This

As extreme cold grips the Midwest, communities are rallying around their unsheltered residents. But will this acute outpouring translate into long-term support for efforts to curb homelessness?

Cara Owsley/The Cincinnati Enquirer/AP
Robert Bestfelt (l.) and Troy Dear keep warm inside Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky in Covington, Ky., Jan. 30. Cold shelters have opened across the Midwest as temperatures have plunged well below 0 degrees F.

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As bitter cold descends on the upper Midwest – rendering some areas colder than the North Slope of Alaska – attention has turned to the region’s most vulnerable populations. In Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and other Midwestern cities, nonprofits, government agencies, and concerned individuals are rallying around the unsheltered. With many shelters overwhelmed with people in need, a network of police stations, libraries, and park facilities have become temporary warming centers. In Chicago, Vernell Jones sought shelter in a police station at the suggestion of a man singing for money at the airport. The man gave him $5 train fare to make sure he was able to get there. The outpouring of aid has been gratifying, homeless advocates say, but they hope that the heightened attention to the issue might buoy support for efforts to address the chronic problem of homelessness that persists throughout the year. “In this emergency moment, [the city and social service providers] are doing a really good job,” says Doug Schenkelberg, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “I really wish that the city would bring that same sense of urgency 365 days a year.”

Four shirts under a leather jacket has been enough to keep Vernell Jones, a young Chicago man, warm through most of the winter – but not this week.

As Mr. Jones sits slumped in a chair at the Pacific Garden Mission, a homeless shelter in Chicago’s South Loop, he says the frigid weather finally forced him inside. He spent Tuesday night stretched out on the floor of a police station as temperatures in Chicago sank to near-record lows.

“I couldn’t sleep outside,” he says. “It was too cold.”

In the morning a Catholic Charities van brought him here, where he hopes not only to stay warm but “to get back on my feet as well.”

As bitter cold descends on the upper Midwest – rendering some areas colder than the North Slope of Alaska – attention has turned to the region’s most vulnerable populations. Across the Midwest, the universal advice has been to stay inside, but that’s a challenge for those who lack a home. In response, Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and other Midwestern cities are stepping up services, opening additional warming shelters, and trying to find creative options to help individuals get out of the cold.

The outpouring of support for the homeless – both officially, from nonprofits and government agencies, and privately, as individuals offer up meals, coats, cash, and even hotel rooms – is gratifying, say homeless advocates. They hope it will mean most people stay safe. But they still worry about the risk to those individuals who, for a variety of reasons, won’t get off the streets. And they say that the spotlight turned on the homeless by this week’s extreme weather needs to be more evident during the rest of the year, when the problem is still acute, if not quite as immediately life-threatening.

“In this emergency moment, [the city and social service providers] are doing a really good job,” says Doug Schenkelberg, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

“Where we get frustrated,” he says “is that when the emergency passes, and in a couple days when the temperature goes back up, there will be fewer shelters beds, there will be fewer resources, and the sense of urgency about homelessness will fade. Yet the people that are being served right now with this scaled-up capacity will still be homeless and will be back on the street. I really wish that the city would bring that same sense of urgency 365 days a year.”

An ‘extreme’ situation

In Chicago, where temperatures dropped to -21 degrees F. before dawn on Thursday morning, many shelters are staying open 24 hours per day and not turning away anyone from their doors. The city designated five municipal buses to act as warming centers in an effort to bring shelters to those who might not otherwise seek them out. A network of police stations, libraries, and park facilities also double as warming centers. And the ride service Lyft announced it would offer free rides to warming centers in a number of cities hit by the cold.

Most homeless people seemed to have found shelter in time for the onset of frigid temperatures Tuesday evening, but a few stragglers were still trickling into Pacific Garden Mission on Wednesday.

“The situation outside is extreme,” says the Rev. Philip Kwiatkowski, president of the Pacific Garden Mission, a nondenominational shelter that houses 500 people on a typical winter tonight. By midweek, those numbers swelled to 700 or 800, mostly men, as homeless people who normally shun shelters seek a refuge from the cold.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” says Karsten Walker, another new arrival, who spent the previous night at a different shelter that sent guests out at 5 a.m., into the pre-dawn cold. He sat in a Starbucks until he found his way to Pacific Garden.

Cara Owsley/The Cincinnati Enquirer/AP
Whitney Lee, one of 75 homeless people to stay overnight at Gabriel's Place, smiles at the community center, in Avondale, Ohio, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. Ms. Lee was given some new clothes Wednesday and said she has been homeless since being released from prison in November.

One of the challenges when the weather gets this extreme is reaching those residents who, for a variety of reasons, refuse to go to a shelter. Some believe the shelters are dangerous and fear for their safety. Others chafe at the rules many shelters impose, particularly if they’re required to go to a single-sex area and be separated from a partner. And some worry about leaving behind belongings they may have in a tent encampment, for instance.

Relief on the street

A good portion of the people Milton Alvarez talked to Tuesday night told him they were planning to stay in their encampments. Mr. Alvarez, a street-medicine outreach professional for Chicago’s Night Ministry, stayed out late Tuesday, checking in on all his van’s regular Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday stops, since he knew it would be too cold the next couple days to make his usual rounds.

He and his Night Ministry colleagues were offering information about the weather predictions, the dangers of staying outside, where to find shelter, and what other options there are. They also distributed blankets, coats, socks, hand warmers, sleeping bags, thermal tops, and gift cards for Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts.

“There were a good amount of people who weren’t really aware of the weather. And there were a balanced number of people who were going to stick it out, and were planning to stay in their encampments.... There’s only so much we can do to prepare them for exposure to the elements,” says Alvarez. “Usually we have a set schedule, but [Tuesday] was anyone we saw, no matter who, we were going to prepare them for what was to come.”

About 40 people from one encampment along Interstate 94 in Chicago were able to find refuge at the Amber Inn, south of downtown, crowding into rooms paid for by a private benefactor. But many say they plan to go back when the weather warms.

“It was a place without any restrictions,” says Willis Norwood, who lived in a tent with his wife. In shelters, he says, “It’s almost like you’re in jail.”

An enduring problem

In Minneapolis, which prides itself on its ability to handle cold, the 30-below temperatures were challenging even some of the most stalwart of residents.

The homeless shelter at First Covenant Church in Minneapolis, usually open from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m., extended its hours for much of this week as an additional warming space for the homeless.

At St. Stephen’s Human Services, outreach teams spend shifts checking to see if those who are unsheltered need emergency care. This week, says John Tribbett, the street outreach program manager for the nonprofit, the priority is to distribute warm weather gear and make sure people aren’t in danger of frostbite.

Frostbite “is an ongoing issue every time, every winter, in a place like Minnesota. This is historic cold,” says Mr. Tribett. “We were out [Wednesday] morning and the sun was shining, but we were still looking at about 27 degrees below zero, regular temperature, and I believe it was pushing -50 with the windchill.”

At YouthLink, another Minneapolis nonprofit, cots are set out in the drop-in center for the 20 or so young people staying at the shelter for the night. YouthLink typically serves as a resource for young people ages 16-24 from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. However, when the temperature drops below -10 degrees F., as it has all week in Minneapolis, the center opens 24/7 to youth at night. Games and movies are available in the evening, and everyone is in bed by 11 p.m. In the morning, staff will work with each individual to assess their situation and find them stable housing.

“We get attention now,” says Bob Nelson, the director of operations at YouthLink. “But we have kids all winter long that are looking for a place to stay, and 0 degrees is also cold as well.”

An outpouring of aid

Daniel Gumnit, chief executive of People Serving People, the largest shelter for children and families in the region, says he’s been gratified to see how many agencies have come together around the issue. On Tuesday, his organization hosted the governor, the mayor, the chair of the board of county commissioners, and others to talk about how to best coordinate services and help the homeless during the cold. “That’s a powerful thing,” he says.

Along with the official outpouring of aid, there are countless stories of individuals reaching out. Most nonprofits say they’re seeing an increase in donations, both of money and of coats and clothing.

Back in Chicago, Jones was at the airport the day before heading to Pacific Garden Mission and saw a man in a wheelchair who was singing for money. The man suggested the police station as a temporary shelter and gave Jones $5 for the train fare. At the station, a police officer roused him during the night and presented him with a supper of a Big Mac, fries, and a drink.

“That was nice of him,” Jones says. “I didn’t expect that.”

Correspondent Richard Mertens contributed reporting from Chicago; staff writer Amanda Paulson from Boulder, Colo.; and staffer Bailey Bischoff from Washington. 

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