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A man warms up near an encampment under the Dan Ryan on Canalport Avenue

A man warms up near an encampment under the Dan Ryan on Canalport Avenue on the South Side.

Anthony Vazquez

Blankets, gloves, a tent and some propane protect some of Chicago’s homeless during ‘brutal’ cold snap

Nicholas McArthur has been homeless for years, but he has never endured a cold snap as windy as this one.

A sturdy tent and gas to heat it are the keys to surviving the sub-zero windchills, he hopes.

“I can’t stay here without my propane,” the 42-year-old said at “Tent City” at Roosevelt and the Dan Ryan Expressway.

As temperatures plummeted to their lowest this season, the homeless outreach program of Thresholds, a North Side-based mental health provider, worked overtime Sunday and Monday — days they’d normally have off — to canvass the city handing out warm clothes and meals and offering shelter.

“Unhoused folks die from weather-related injuries. We understand that now is especially the time we want to be intentional about our work,” says Christian Zamarriego, director of Thresholds’ outreach program.

Nicholas McArthur standing in heavy winter coat with tents in background

Nicholas McArthur stands at an encampment on the 1100 block of Deplanes Street in the South Loop.

Anthony Vazquez

The group had 17 volunteers working over the weekend, and helped get eight people into warming centers and five into motels, he said.

The organization doesn’t normally offer a motel option, but the leadership of Thresholds decided the dire circumstances of the cold snap warranted it.

How will they fund it?

They’ll figure that out later.

Some people who didn’t want temporary housing instead just wanted to warm up in the organization’s outreach van.

“We asked if they wanted to sit in the van and thaw out. It’s brutal,” Zamarriego said.

But not every outreach group worked this weekend.

The cold snap was so intense that outreach work of the Night Ministry was suspended for the health and well-being of its staff, an organization spokesman said.

tents lined up on snowy ground

Tents line both sides of an encampment on the 1100 block of Deplanes Street in South Loop.

Anthony Vazquez

Night Ministry anticipated the freeze and prioritized handing out gloves, coats and hand-warmers before ceasing operations on Friday. They also alerted unhoused folks of the dangerous cold coming and how to spot signs of hypothermia and frostbite in themselves and others. The Night Ministry plans to resume its work on Wednesday.

Homeless camps at Canalport and Roosevelt near the Dan Ryan were mostly empty on Tuesday, with the majority of tents left open and obviously abandoned.

The sole remaining resident at the Canalport site scavenged the grounds for burnable material for a makeshift fire.

Nearby at the Roosevelt site, McArthur said the population of Tent City usually dwindles in winter. About 15 or 20 residents call it home now, he says. He’s lived there for about a year.

Despite the cold, there’s always a way to warm up.

“If we get cold, we’ll ride the train, go to a warming center,” he said.

bottles of propane

Bottles of propane at an encampment under the Dan Ryan on Canalport Avenue on the South Side.

Anthony Vazquez

The frost became too much for him late Sunday, the area’s coldest night yet, when he sought overnight shelter at the Harold Washington Library, which was kept open as a 24/7 shelter during the freeze.

“I didn’t even know about it. They gave me a blanket, a sandwich, water,” he said.

Many of the homeless braving the cold have been staying in high-quality, orange ice fishing tents, distributed since 2022 by the Orange Tent Project.

Its director, Morgan McLuckie, has been passing out propane tanks and hot meals to the homeless over the worst of the freeze.

“We’re meeting people where they’re at. There’s people who don’t want to go to the shelter, or are worried the city will take their tent down,” she said.

Her group passed out 800 propane tanks on Monday, and another 500 last Friday before the freeze, she said. They’ve also been distributing tarps to be placed over the tents to combat frost inside the tents, which develops when the windows are left closed, she said.

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless doesn’t perform street outreach, and instead focuses on advocacy and legal assistance.

Its executive director, Doug Schenkelberg, said that extreme weather events — such as this cold snap or heat waves in the summer — are examples of why the city needs more robust homeless services.

“We push over and over that we need better funded longterm strategies, primarily longterm access to housing, so when crisis like this pops up, we have fewer people in harm’s way to begin with,” he said.

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