Sheltering suburban homeless on frigid days
Christopher Thompson effortlessly shuffles the deck of playing cards, looking like a man who's played more games than Hoyle.
The red-backed cards snap as they briskly blend at Thompson's fingertips. The game is Spades, and three other players at the rectangular table await the deal.
All are homeless.
Although the cards are marked with the logo of Milwaukee's Potawatami Bingo Casino, the game is being played at a daytime resource center in North Chicago run by PADS Lake County.
"To have some place to stay when it's cold like this, it's a good thing," the 51-year-old Thompson says before play begins. "Everybody gets in bad situations. Everybody needs some help."
Thompson was among the many homeless people who sought shelter at the center Monday, one of the coldest days on record. It's at 3001 Green Bay Road, on the campus of the Capt. James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center.
Visitors found meals, a place to rest, a hot shower, books to read and even washing machines for their clothes.
"The basic needs we take for granted," said Joel Williams, PADS Lake County's executive director.
The dangers that come with exposure to extreme cold have been well-reported this winter: frostbite, hypothermia, death. For the homeless, the stakes are more grave.
"When you have weather like this, obviously the health risks are tremendous," Williams said.
Churches throughout Lake County offer shelter on a rotating schedule at night, but the center in North Chicago is the only daytime PADS facility in the county.
The center is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day -- opposite the hours of the church shelters in the PADS system. Homeless people are welcome to walk or drive over on their own; many are bused to and from the overnight sanctuaries.
An accurate estimate of Lake County's homeless population is elusive. Although a count is attempted every year, it isn't thorough and doesn't include people who have temporarily found shelter or are hiding from the census takers.
The last census, conducted in January 2013, revealed 497 homeless people living in the county.
PADS employees encourage homeless men and women to come to their shelters with outreach missions throughout the year. They go to homeless hangouts such as train stations and wooded areas with packages of food and toiletries, and they try to break down resistance to the shelter system, Williams said.
"It's more about building that relationship with our staff," he said.
When it gets this cold, PADS sends buses to train stations in search of homeless people who want shelter.
During the last patch of extreme cold a few weeks ago, about 120 homeless people came to the center each day, Williams said. Normally this time of year, the facility will see between 90 and 100 people a day.
"We are planning for that again (this week)," Williams said.
PADS client Larry Daniels knows how dangerous the cold can be if you're homeless. A cousin froze to death one winter while sleeping in his car, Daniels said.
"I know people out there are going to die in the cold," he said. "I think about that."
Barbara Belongia has been spending her days at the center for about three weeks. Homeless for nearly a year, the former Kenosha resident has bounded from state to state and center to center.
The brutal cold makes it hard for her to get around, so she came to the PADS center.
"It's challenging," she said of the weather. "They take care of me. They feed you good, you get to eat good."
The North Chicago center has space set aside for families, but the accommodations aren't spacious. In one room, children from two families rested on blankets arranged on the floor as their parents sat on chairs nearby.
Alexander Rodriguez was there with his 15-year-old daughter. Formerly of Round Lake, they've been using shelters for about a month as they search for more permanent housing.
In a quiet voice, Rodriguez said "not getting sick" is his top priority during the cold weather.
"Making sure that she's OK and not getting sick as well," Rodriguez said, gesturing to his daughter.
If you need shelter, you can call PADS at (847) 689-4357 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.