Around 7 p.m. Wednesday, when temperatures were falling far below freezing, Michael Brothers headed toward a McDonald’s restaurant in East Chicago, Indiana to stay warm.
But the restaurant, like most businesses in the area, had closed because of the record cold temperatures.
“Everything was shut down around here. I felt like my options were closing,” said Brothers, 38, a Chicago native who is homeless. "I don’t have no other family out here in East Chicago, really no friends. I was going to be one of those people frozen, seen outside — they made a story about him on social media.”
Brothers said he dreaded staying in the cold much longer.
“You couldn’t keep your face up without your eyes freezing shut. I had never witnessed anything that cold in my life,” he said.
As Brothers would soon find out, a group of concerned citizens had opened a makeshift, 24-hour shelter inside a cafeteria at St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church in East Chicago, a small industrial city just a few miles south of the stateline between Indiana and Illinois.
“St. Pat’s got permission from the archdiocese (Roman Catholic Diocese of Gary) to do a warming center. I reached out to the father and we got it going,” said Robert Garcia, who is a East Chicago City Councilman.
Garica, who also works for the local public school system, used a school bus to pick up homeless people around the city’s community centers, which close at 7 p.m., and even at the city’s police station.
As Garcia was doing that, other volunteers pitched in to provide food, clothing, cots, and toiletries to the dozen or so homeless individuals who were transported to the shelter. Among the people they transported was Brothers.
“Once I put it on Facebook, everybody just came through,” Garcia said.
One of those was Marisol Ramos, owner of Solita’s Puerto Rican Restaurant in East Chicago.
“I saw a need and decided to collect some doughnuts and deliver it to the warming shelters,” Ramos said. “Doughnuts turned into coffee and then coffee into food. I made some chili for lunch and Puerto Rican rice and chicken for dinner. I’ve been here the last couple of days.”
Debbie Bolanos, who runs a travel agency and Mexican dance school in the city, said the effort was an eye-opener.
“I had no idea we had so many homeless people on the streets of East Chicago,” Bolanos said as she set out food at St. Pat’s on Thursday evening.
Inside the gym, folks took refuge from the cold and snow outside by relaxing, playing cards, and listening to music.
One woman, Alecia, who didn’t want to provide her last name, said without the shelter she didn’t know what would have happened to her.
“I’d probably be in a grave somewhere,” said Alecia, who has three children and a grandchild. “It was just that cold. I’m grateful for this.”
The shelter is scheduled to remain open until noon Saturday.
Twenty-eight-year-old Nathaniel, a homeless man who also declined to give his last name, doesn’t want to think what he’ll do next.
“It’s either here or jail. That’s the only two practical options,” Nathaniel said. “Hopefully, God has my next back like he always has. I don’t really question my next step. I take care of the small things and hopefully everything else will fall in line.”