Polar Vortex 2019: How Homeless Shelters Helped Fellow Chicagoans

By Samantha Latson
Staff Reporter

The Chicago River totally frozen by ice. Photo courtesy of Theresa Crawford – AP Photos.

Chicago came to a frozen standstill as the polar vortex of 2019 seized the city. With temperatures colder than Alaska, many Chicagoans stayed home – turning up the thermostat and hunkering down under a warm blanket. But as many residents stayed home, some united under a common enemy – that being the merciless cold – to help their fellow neighbors.

The National Weather Service urged people to stay inside, explaining those not wearing proper clothing could contract frostbite under five minutes. Temperatures were reported to dip below -20 degrees fahrenheit with a bitter windchill reported of 50 degrees below zero.

Understanding their commuting community, Roosevelt University closed their doors, allowing students to stay home to brave the weather.

Pacific Garden Mission, a homeless shelter located on 1458 S. Canal St., and Lincoln Park Community Services accommodated those in need of shelter from the cold.

When asked what Pacific Garden did to ensure people weren’t on the street, Gerald Casey, the director of outreach ministries at Pacific Garden Mission, said the shelter tries to allow in as many people as possible.

“We understood that the weather was deadly and harmful. Therefore our door were wide open. We have the bed space to accommodate round the clock,” Casey said.

When asked if they noticed any changes due to the weather, Casey said there was an increase in residents during the extreme weather conditions.

“Within a matter of hours, we had a total of 800 residents here. During the spring and summer months, we usually have around 500 people in the facility.”   

Sean O’Gara, the program director at Lincoln Park Community Services, said he noticed that all residents stayed within the shelter during the harsh weather conditions.

“We did notice that a lot more of our guest who would go out in the daytime stayed indoors. Usually, about two-thirds or three-quarters of our overnight guest spend time away from the shelter, but everyone stayed in,” O’Gara said.

According to a 2018 survey, there are approximately 5,400 residents experiencing homelessness in Chicago. To provide refuge for homeless residents who may not want to go to a shelter or the nearest one is just too far, the city implemented “mobile warming centers” by using CTA buses in areas highly frequented by homeless residents.

Annually, nearly 700 homeless Americans die each year from hypothermia, according to the National Health Care for Homeless Council.

With the freezing temperatures, Chicago had over 100 warming centers throughout the city. Many churches and buildings were designated warming centers for families in Chicago. When asked about their capacity and resources, O’Gara said, “We had a random cab driver drop a few people off at our facility. We had additional people brought to us and were able to accomodate for the day. We brought out extra mats, blankets and had plenty of food.”

Pacific Garden Mission weren’t overcrowded and were able to accommodate many people.  “No, we weren’t over crowded at all, we can handle up 1,200 people. We didn’t have to turn anyone away or refer anyone elsewhere,” Casey said.  

Casey said this is more than just a job or service for him. “I don’t have a job here, I have a joy. I’m having fun doing what I love,” Casey said.

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