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When Your Home is Colder Than Antarctica

With a Wednesday night temperature forecast of 25 below zero, and a windchill as low as 50 below, Chicago will be colder than Antarctica this week. 

The record-breaking temperatures caused hundreds of flights to be cancelled at the airports, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said the potentially life-threatening conditions require an “all hands on deck” response, and National Weather Service meteorologist Amy Seeley warns that “If you don’t have to be outside, don’t.”

Yet for the 16,000 Chicagoans who experience homelessness without any friends or family to “double up” with on couches or spare rooms, there may not be a choice – there are only 1,701 emergency shelter beds available in the City, with an additional 12,188 beds available in transitional or permanent supportive housing. 

So, with temperatures that can cause frostbite to exposed skin in as little as 5 minutes, what are Chicago’s homeless to do? Last week, I joined in an overnight trek through the streets and alleys of Chicago as part of the HUD-mandated Point in Time Count of homelessness to find out. 

While the tent city encampment under the Wilson Avenue viaduct was broken up following a court battle with the City, many of Chicago’s homeless have formed smaller tent communities where they can share resources and the occasional propane-fueled heater.

Large populations live in parts of Lower Wacker Drive -  and some are taking shelter in the labrynth of corridors and tunnels that connect the basements of may downtown buildings know as the Pedway

Yet while these temporary solutions may protect individuals enough to keep them alive during the extreme cold, they don’t really provide a lasting change to these vulnerable folks’ life circumstances.

That’s why I’m amazed by the work of Care For Friends – a homeless services network that provides more than a handout to Chicago’s most vulnerable. 

The organization found that while there are a variety of services that can address the underlying causes of homelessness, many of them have difficult sign-in requirements that scare away many (particularly those who may suffer paranoia or mental illness, have had prior negative experiences with authority, or don’t have current identification). To overcome these barriers, Care For Friends provides a “open to all” hot meal that asks nothing whatsoever of their guests.

The meals are served “with dignity and respect” at family-style table gatherings that have case workers and other representatives of life-changing programs intermixed amongst the homeless guests. Over time, trusting relationships are developed, easing the transition to programs that will ultimately change the course of the homeless person’s life. One partner agency reports that more than half of their clients are first encountered at a Care For Friends meal – an indication that these barriers to entry have been removed.

Following that model, Care For Friends reports that 85% of guests they send to a housing partner are permanently housed within 6 months, and the vast majority remain housed when checked back on a year later. Graduates of a job skills training program earn an average of $12.34 per hour for work that lasts 38 hours per week for at least a year, and 60% of their guests have now found a permanent medical home that is not the Emergency Department.

On February 22nd, I’ll be joining Care For Friends in their annual “Sleepout for Homelessness” to raise funds for this important cause. I’m hoping that the temperatures in our tent will be much warmer than Chicago’s homeless are experiencing this week. But I also know that those donating to the cause aren’t just supporting a single warm night for Chicago’s poor – they’re making connections to a lifetime of warmth, shelter, jobs, and health.

About:  JD Miller is a senior technology executive with a career spanning small startups and large public companies. He uses this expertise to help organizations increase and sustain financial performance. He is also active in Chicago’s philanthropic community, with a special interest in issues related to hunger and homelessness.

You can follow Dr. Miller on Twitter @JDM_Chicago

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