April 13, 2020 HUMAN RIGHTS

Polar Vortex Highlighted the Harsh Realities of Homelessness

by Paul W. Hamann
Chicago cityscape from Diversy Harbor during the polar vortex.

Chicago cityscape from Diversy Harbor during the polar vortex.

Chicago’s homeless population faces challenges year-round, but the conditions of their lives are brought into stark relief during extreme weather, such as the polar vortex that descended upon the region in January 2019. The work done by organizations that serve these community members, such as The Night Ministry, a nonprofit that provides housing, health care, and human connection to individuals experiencing homelessness or poverty, is also highlighted, as well as complicated, by weather emergencies.

As the polar vortex settled in, members of The Night Ministry’s Street Medicine Team visited homeless encampments across the city, checking body temperatures, offering blankets, gloves, hats, socks, hand warmers, and food, and providing information on shelters and warming centers. The Street Medicine Team brings free health care, survival supplies, and supportive services directly to individuals who have the most difficulty accessing traditional means of assistance.

In these vortex conditions, however, even a basic well-being check can be difficult. Clients are reluctant to remove the layers of clothing they are wearing. And while the Street Medicine Team offered rides to emergency shelters, none of the clients they encountered accepted. Many individuals living on the streets are reluctant to go to shelters—fear of losing their possessions, concerns about safety, or having to separate from a family member or partner are among the many reasons. One client with a dangerously low body temperature did accept a lift to the nearest public library to warm up. A few others rode with the team to a nearby fast food restaurant, where a Street Medicine volunteer physician treated an infection on a client’s leg in the washroom.

Exposure to extremely low temperatures can lead to frostbite and hypothermia. But living outside during cold weather can create or exacerbate other health challenges. The Night Ministry’s health care professionals see more arthritic symptoms among their patients during winter, as sleeping on cold pavement puts extra stress on the body. Meanwhile, foot care, already a challenge year-round, can be particularly difficult in the winter, as the moisture that builds up in wet shoes, worn for days on end, breaks down skin tissue. Prevalence rates for asthma are higher among individuals experiencing homelessness than the general population. And in the winter, catching the cold or the flu or just breathing in cold, dry air can trigger an asthma attack.

The City of Chicago responded to the polar vortex by adding 500 extra shelter beds, running two 24-hour warming centers, expanding hours at others, and setting up a handful of public transit buses as warming facilities. With support from the city, some overnight shelters stayed open around the clock. But, with an estimated 16,000 individuals living on the streets or in shelters in Chicago, capacity is never enough. Some individuals who chose not to seek indoor shelter used propane to heat their tents. Unfortunately, a propane tank explosion in an encampment in the South Loop neighborhood triggered the evacuation of the campsite, displacing dozens of individuals.

One of the programs that operated 24/7 during the week of the polar vortex was The Crib, The Night Ministry’s emergency shelter for young adults, which is usually only open overnight. Twenty-three guests stayed at The Crib over the course of five nights; staff members worked double-shifts to keep the program open. Donations of blankets proved a blessing, as the shelter’s laundry service provider was not available, and its washer and dryer, mainly utilized by guests to wash their clothes, were not made to clean linens for all the beds.

In a city where nearly 20 percent of households live below the federal poverty level and more than a third are severely cost-burdened, many of those who do have four walls around them often find themselves in precarious housing situations. Over half of clients who visit The Night Ministry’s Health Outreach Bus, which brings free health care, HIV/STI testing, food, and other resources to seven underserved communities, live in apartments or houses. When winter moves in, more of them inquire with the bus’s case manager about rent and utility assistance programs as well as legal resources to prevent eviction. In addition, many clients, having spent the majority of their income on housing-related costs, ask for information about food pantries, including those whose food stamp benefits aren’t robust enough to keep shelves and refrigerators stocked for a whole month.

Phenomena like the polar vortex give communities the chance to reflect on how they are serving their most vulnerable members. The hope is that they will continue to have these conversations, and recognize the need to provide support, 365 days of the year.

Paul W. Hmann is the president and CEO of The Night Ministry.