Suburban warming centers open, but crowds sparse

Many suburban warming shelters are largely going unused, despite the recent bone-chilling cold and subzero wind chills, operators say.

Officials at village halls and township offices, which offer heated buildings but little activity or entertainment, say it's rare for people to come in seeking to warm up even in the extreme cold.

That was the case again Tuesday, when no one sought shelter from the cold at the South Elgin police station, Gilberts village hall or township offices in Elk Grove, Schaumburg or Wheeling, officials said.

"We don't get a lot of traffic throughout the winter," Elk Grove Township Supervisor Michael Sweeney said. "We have the space to be able to help out; we just haven't seen it."

Some libraries are reporting a slight uptick in visitors, such as the Santori Library in Aurora, where more people have been stepping inside the atrium for warmth. At Wheaton Public Library, officials say they're still seeing the same 10 to 15 people who seek refuge most days.

But some of those folks also could be coming to the library to use the internet or because the kids are home from school, officials say. The same goes for recreation centers and train stations, common warming centers that offer a break from the cold - usually as a side benefit to another purpose, such as a workout or a ride to the office.

Metra spokeswoman Meg Reile said the agency has asked operators at all 241 transit stations to keep them open 24/7 so commuters and others can seek shelter.

The Prairie View Metra station, operated by Vernon Township, is one such facility. Holly Kim, the township's director of constituent affairs, encouraged people to take advantage.

"If your heat's out in your house or your pipes are busted and you can't use hot water and you just need a place to hang for a few hours, that's a perfect reason to go to a warming center," Kim said.

While many warming centers report few visitors, homeless assistance agencies - especially ones known for providing comprehensive services - are reporting larger crowds during the day.

Aurora's Hesed House typically closes for a few hours each morning and afternoon for cleaning before serving as an overnight shelter for roughly 180 people, Executive Director Ryan Dowd said. But since the extreme cold began, he said closing is no longer an option. Roughly 120 people have been staying throughout the day for meals and warmth.

"We're much more focused on, 'OK, how do we keep people alive,'" Dowd said. "Then we'll worry about getting people back on their feet again once the weather breaks."

JOURNEYS The Road Home in Palatine is another busy daytime spot for people who are homeless, such as Dennis Carollo and Katrina Raker and her 18-year-old son Henry, all of whom spent time there Tuesday.

Within "cozy quarters" at 1140 E. Northwest Hwy., staff members offer counseling, case management, meals, a clothing closet and a food pantry to 60 to 90 people a day, Clinical Director Todd Stull said.

"We try and be as inclusive as possible and make sure we encourage people to come in from the super-cold weather," Stull said.

Recent crowds inside JOURNEYS' Hope Day Center from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. have been larger than usual, with 20 to 30 people awaiting the opening each day, Stull said. At close, workers direct shelter-seekers to a PADS site, often a church, which provides refuge under the Public Action to Deliver Shelter program.

DuPage PADS sites are allowed to exceed capacity when the temperature drops below freezing, so no one will be turned away, said Janelle Barcelona, vice president of development. The agency works with hosting churches to offer longer hours during extreme cold.

"Congregations are very willing," Barcelona said, "to work with us and extend their hours."

• Daily Herald staff writers Katlyn Smith and Elena Ferrarin and staff photographer Mark Welsh contributed to this report.

  Hesed House Executive Director Ryan Dowd talks Tuesday with shelter guests Darlene Thomas and Mandalee Manning as the homeless services center stays open all day to give people refuge from the cold. Mark Black/
  Hesed House resident Daniel Irving washes sheets and towels Tuesday to help out as the shelter manages about 120 people staying out of the cold during the day and 180 people sleeping over each night. Mark Black/
  Isaac Frusti of Elgin tries to stay warm Tuesday as he walks to catch a bus in downtown Elgin. Morning low temperatures were below zero around the Fox Valley. Rick West/
  Geese and ducks sit on the icy Fox River on Tuesday in Elgin as temperatures started the day below zero. Rick West/
  Dennie Flynn of Wheaton makes her way downtown during subzero temperatures on Tuesday. "I find everything you can find to layer and that makes it easier," she said of dealing with the cold. Bev Horne/
  Steam rises from Bob Taylor's breath as the worker with Prodigy Construction in Crown Point, Indiana, takes a call from his boss in the cold Tuesday morning. Taylor was bundled up against the cold while working outside on a remodeling project at a Wauconda McDonald's restaurant. Paul Valade/
  Devyani Bedekar of Vernon Hills is bundled up Tuesday as she walks to her car from the Metra stop in Libertyville. Steve Lundy/
  Tracy Blethen of Palatine walk to the grocery store in subzero temperatures on Tuesday. She said she was "trying to exercise with a purpose" and described the cold as "fine - just dress warmer." Mark Welsh/
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