Suburban police, nonprofits seek to protect homeless from winter's wrath
As a deadly cold snap grips the suburbs this week, police, homeless shelters, nonprofit groups and community volunteers are dialing up efforts to help those without shelter weather the Arctic-like temperatures and stay alive.
The National Weather Service predicts the worst cold will be Wednesday, with highs around minus 14 and lows around minus 26. Temperatures are expected to plummet today to an overnight low around minus 22.
Police departments across the suburbs are working with homeless assistance agencies to get people to shelter.
Elgin police Cmdr. Frank Trost said officers will be out in force, especially Wednesday, and will check areas where people are known to stay outdoors.
"We can't forcibly move someone, unless we feel it's detrimental for life safety," Trost said. "If someone is in need, we are going to help them."
Officers will transport anyone seeking to escape the extreme cold to a shelter, public buildings or other facilities. The Elgin police station's lobby, which normally closes at 10:30 p.m., will remain open all week for those wanting to stay warm. The station is at 151 Douglas Ave.
"We will be checking parking decks, wooded areas along the river bank ... any place that can offer some semblance of shelter," Trost said. "We will be checking all the areas to make sure we don't miss anyone."
Elgin has about 100 homeless residents, including 25 living in "Tent City," an encampment between the railroad tracks and the Fox River.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness will be conducting a homeless count in several Cook County suburbs Tuesday and Wednesday.
Among the volunteers doing the counting is Bill Middendorp of the Salvation Army Des Plaines Corps Community Center, which serves Arlington Heights, Des Plaines, Elk Grove Village, Mount Prospect and Prospect Heights.
"We are going to be going out more often with supplies, blankets for the people who don't want to come in," Middendorp said. "A majority of them are going to find some place to weather it out for the next couple of days. We have put a few of them up in hotels for the next few days ... people with medical conditions. We're still trying to figure out exactly how many we can (house in hotels). It's not something we typically do."
The Community Center at 609 W. Dempster St., Des Plaines, will be open as a warming center from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, if the temperature dips below 10 degrees, Middendorp said.
During the day, homeless people often seek shelter in libraries, Laundromats, train stations and grocery stores. Nighttime options are more limited.
Some suburban warming centers are listed at www2.illinois.gov/ready/Press/Pages/011619.aspx. Police say anyone in immediate need of shelter should call 911.
Officials with the nonprofit group Journeys The Road Home, which aids homeless people in northwestern Cook County, say demand for overnight shelter might exceed capacity this week.
"We are working with our shelter faith community partners to open up extra space temporarily," said Suzanne Ploger, development director for the Palatine-based group, which oversees 18 shelters in the area. "We also have partnerships with other sheltering agencies and law enforcement to help everyone find a warm place at night."
At least two shelters will be open each night. Shelter sites can be found in Arlington Heights, Buffalo Grove, Elk Grove Village, Mount Prospect, Palatine and elsewhere.
At least 2,000 people sleep in homeless shelters or on the street each night in suburban Cook County, Ploger said.
Ryan Dowd, executive director of Hesed House, said the Aurora homeless shelter surprisingly doesn't see a large influx in extreme cold.
When bitter cold hits, Hesed House's numbers actually can decrease as families are more willing to take in their homeless relatives then, he said.
Hesed House is a "low threshold shelter" that accepts people with criminal backgrounds or mental health issues. It is staffed 24 hours a day all year long and houses between 200 and 250 people, of which 40 to 50 are children.
In severe weather, "the biggest change is the sheer terror of getting a phone call from police or the morgue of someone who got left out there," said Dowd, who has received news of at least two people who died from the cold since he became director in 2004.
In Lake County, two homeless shelters at rotating locations are open nightly through the nonprofit PADS Lake County. A third shelter operates every Wednesday night.
Overflow options are available if those sites reach capacity, Executive Director Joel Williams said. PADS has a daytime resource center in Waukegan, too.
"Daytime space is a bit more difficult, but we are working with our partners to ensure that there will be adequate space in warming centers and that our clients will have the ability to access those warming centers," he said.
A list of shelters can be found at padslakecounty.org. It includes sites in Libertyville, Grayslake, Mundelein, Lindenhurst and Wauconda.
About 500 homeless people live in Lake County. PADS employees go to places where homeless people congregate to encourage them to find shelter or seek other services.
"We have been reaching out to them over the past few days in anticipation of this weather, and most have sought shelter," Williams said.
PADS also can connect clients with doctors to address health needs. This week, employees especially will be on the lookout for cases of possible frostbite or hypothermia, Williams said.
• Daily Herald staff writers Russell Lissau and Harry Hitzeman contributed to this report.