Sleeping Rough Through a Polar Vortex!

When the "polar vortex" hit Chicago this past winter, I had wished it was my time to relax and sit around a nice warm fire with a good book! Unfortunately, that was just not the case! As wave after wave of this "polar vortex" slammed good old Chiberia (the new nickname Chicago received this winter), things became a lot more serious for me! This was not because icy piles of snow, record-breaking freezing temperatures and face-burning wind chills can be extremely aggravating and painful, but rather, it's the realization that these insanely low temperatures and the endless plummeting of snow meant that life and death rested in my feeble hands. 

This last comment may sound like an exaggeration, but it's not; the chronically homeless population is one of our modern day society's most vulnerable, as they don't have as many options to escape our winter's harsh and brutal elements!

As I look back over the years, I regret to say: even though we live in a very wealthy nation, which contains enough resources to keep everyone warm, I've known a few people who have lost toes due to frostbite and I've also mourned over a few fellas who froze to death. Yet, there was one thing I said to myself as the temperatures plummeted; "during this ongoing polar vortex, I'm going to do everything in my power to prevent hypothermia, frostbite and death hitting any of my homeless friends in Uptown!" 

I could not ignore the severity of this winter; recently recorded as the "coldest Chicago has ever known!" Too many men and women slept outside. Far too many men and women slept (with one eye open) on public transportation. Too many men and women struggled on a nightly basis to locate a warm location to lay their weary heads! Every single night, most of these guys pray and beg for God's mercy, hoping that by His grace, they'll survive to be able to see the morning light! 

This picture shows a lineup of about 7 people "sleeping rough" under a local viaduct; I spoke to Trent, who told me how he snuggles under 23 quilts, hiding every millimeter of his body! To prevent dampness and the ground's chill, he keeps under him and pile of cardboard, a mat made out of plastic bags (NLOB) and a mattress! He knows how devastating and dangerous it can be to go to sleep wearing wet clothes and socks. He makes sure he keeps his socks dry or changes them, along with any other item of clothing on him. Somehow, by doing this, he manages to keep himself relatively warm in temperatures that frequently dipped well below zero this winter.  
When the first wave of this polar vortex hit Chicago, we ventured out into record-breaking frigid temperatures that dipped to -16F, and to make matters worse, windchills peaked at a horrible and deathly -50F. The severity of this weather caused many pipes to burst all over the city! The reason we went out in vans was twofold; to pick people up and offer them spots in our warming center and to drive the men from our daytime drop-in center at CCO to Epworth Church, the location where the fellas sleep at night! This trek is about one mile, and with temperatures like this, it was simply too harsh and too lethal to expect these men to walk. 

The first time we went out in a 15 passenger maxi-van was quite an adventure. Due to all the piles of snow and ice, and having a van that had no weight at the back, it took 20 minutes just to get it out of it's parking spot. Sandy drove, while I dug out snow, put cardboard under the tires and was even standing and jumping on the back of the van. (I bet it was funny to see, but no one was out in temperatures like that!) Eventually we did it, but it took many minutes of placing my fingers in front of the van's heater for them to defrost and stop aching. I think we drove over 40 men that night, and then we picked them up again the next morning to bring them back to CCO for breakfast. I am not exaggerating by saying, these men were so incredibly grateful and thankful! 

This routine happened many times over this winter. When the forecast predicted temperatures that would dip below 10F, various people ventured out and gave these fellas a little relief! The first night's reality of such harsh conditions was never repeated; thankfully! We even did one run when the temperatures rose, it poured with rain that day, the snow was melting and every corner was flooded with massive puddles of icy cold water! This particular day, there was absolutely no way for anyone to keep their boots and socks dry!
On one of the coldest nights, I spoke to Greg, a man I've known for over a decade! He never resides in shelters, but chooses to "sleep rough" under viaducts. This particular night, he stood in frigid temperatures at the Wilson exit, panhandling! I walked up to him with a hot cup of coffee and begged him to "come in" and not sleep under the viaduct. I made him promise that he wouldn't spend this particular night outside. He promised!

A little later, Greg shared with me how many people frequently stopped under these viaducts and blessed them with little, but very meaningful, gifts. They'd receive vital things like soup, coffee, gloves, blankets, mats and cash! During this coldest patch, someone actually drove up to Greg and blessed him with $100. With this cash, Greg was able get himself and 3 of his "sleeping rough" buddies out of the frigid temperatures for 3 nights, by paying for a room in a cheap hotel. This mysterious, and very generous stranger, helped prevent the possibility of people dying or sustaining permanent injury under the Wilson viaduct this winter! 
During this winter, we were kept busy, by constantly having anywhere up to 50 people a night finding warmth and sleep in our warming center. These guys came to us in a variety of different ways; some were sent to us by CDFSS and other agencies, the police picked up frozen folk and dropped them off, we went out to pick some people up and others just wandered in. Without this compassion and community networking, I don't know how some of these fellas would have otherwise survived.

One very cold evening, a police sergeant dropped off an extremely sick and inebriated man named Roy; he had found him sleeping under a bridge, freezing, almost to the point of death; he was "out there" without gloves! He brought him to CCO and we gave him a spot; Roy kept on getting me to feel how frozen his cold hands were, which took a very long time to thaw out. Thankfully, because of the compassion of this police sergeant, Roy did not get frost-bitten. This cop made an active choice not to "drive on by" this man laying in the snow, but he took the time to assist him, and because of this, Roy survived the horrors of this winter.

Terry was another man who was rescued this winter. After being evicted in late 2013, he ended up living in parks and pushing his shopping cart around Uptown. Terry is about 60 years old, struggles with a severe mental illness, is very ill and can barely walk. A local outreach worker called me, worried about how he'd make it through the winter and whether we could help. I'd known this man for years, so I gladly opened our doors, gave him a spot and he survived the polar vortex! 

I could tell story after story of how human compassion and love shone through depths of this horrid winter! I could tell stories of how these brutal conditions caused people to put aside their differences and hatred, to forgive and land a helping hand. I could also reflect on the amazing resilience, that chronically homeless folk have, when their realities become extreme and life threatening! I could mention how God's loving compassion and concern for the "least of these" seemed ever-present throughout every moment of this winter! 

All these tales reflect on this reality: my winter was never dull! In fact, the polar vortex proved to be a blessing; as I was able to see and experience people coming together, loving and lifting one another up. I was also able to see and experience those ugly barriers coming down. I was also able to see and experience people taking risks and sacrificing their comforts for the sake of those who are weak! I was able to see and experience the "power of the gospel" shining brightly and spreading warmth during this cold dark winter! 

With this in mind, I gotta finish by saying: This long hard winter, mysteriously restored hope within me! 
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