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Tents used for shelter under the Kennedy Expressway in Bucktown.

Tents used for shelter under the Kennedy Expressway in Bucktown.

Anthony Vazquez

Severe weather and air pollution create more problems for Chicago’s unhoused

A weekend downpour overwhelmed Chicago’s sewer system this month and led to flooded streets, alleys and basements. The heavy rain also steeped a small cluster of tents used by the unhoused near a paved corner of Lower Wacker Drive.

Jeffrey Rasmussen, 64, said the water soaked everything inside his tent. He said he put his clothes and blanket out to dry, but his belongings were swept away by street cleaners.

“I got no clothes right now besides what I’m wearing because everything else is gone,” he said, blankly gazing at the cars roaring by just a couple of feet away.

Several gaping holes scar the brick walls of the underground tunnel, and Rasmussen said the camp tends to get “a lot of water.”

But heavy rainfall is just one of several increasingly hazardous environmental factors unhoused people like Rasmussen are up against. That’s why some outreach workers and medical experts are taking new steps to help the unhoused, who have few places to seek refuge from extreme weather.

When smoke from the Canadian wildfires engulfed the Midwest, nurse practitioner Stephan Koruba — who provides medical treatment to the unhoused — said three of his patients suffered severe asthma attacks.

Koruba, who works with a nonprofit called the Night Ministry, said his team tries to take those patients to public indoor places with cleaner air, such as cooling centers or libraries. But not all their patients are able to find shelter. And when severe weather hits, Koruba said those experiencing homelessness don’t have much to protect themselves.

“When you change any of these environmental factors, our clients are not able to walk as far for a free meal,” Koruba said. “They use their medicine faster. Their medicine might not open up their lungs like it should. Their lungs can pretty much lock down on them where they’ll start wheezing, and then they have to call 911.”

His team distributed KN95 masks this month to patients with breathing issues, but that’s not the only adjustment Koruba believes will be needed as climate change makes extreme weather a more frequent occurrence.

Koruba said his team will start keeping a list of all their clients who have respiratory issues and check on them when the air quality gets dangerous.

Outreach workers with Thresholds, another nonprofit helping people on the streets get housing, keep a database of people they meet while doing outreach on the CTA’s Red Line. They hop from train to train on weekday evenings after rush hour in pairs of two, giving snacks and water to the unhoused. If the people they meet are willing, the group helps them fill out a form to get on a housing waitlist.

Last Friday, outreach worker MG Hibionada and her coworker met a man strumming a guitar for a steady throng of downtown commuters.

The duo convinced the 49-year-old musician that filling out a housing form would be a painless process, so he zipped his guitar into a case coming apart at the seams and followed the outreach workers to a nearby Halal Guys. After ordering him a lamb gyros, Hibionada asked if he has recently had trouble breathing.

The musician, with his black leather cap slanted to the side, admitted he has.

“What do you do when it rains?” Hibionada asked.

“You stay still and say positive things, like mantras or meditations,” he replied, demonstrating the humming sounds of his favorite Sanskrit mantra between mouthfuls of gyros.

“If you do it long enough, everything fades away and you feel like you’re somewhere else.”

Anna Savchenko is a reporter for WBEZ. You can reach her at @annasavchenkoo.

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