A Red Line train rumbles past the Wilson stop bound for Howard.

It’s 9 p.m. on Friday, and there’s an unmistakable stale odor of waste permeating the car. An empty bottle of Wild Irish Rose rolls back and fourth over the salt-stained floor as the train starts and stops again. Groups of people get on and off. They’re getting off of work. They’re meeting up with friends.

Their nights are just beginning.

The night is also just beginning for George. Rather than using the El to commute, he is settling in for the night. He’s only been without a home for a few weeks, but has already experienced some of the worst this past Chicago winter had to offer. With temperatures plunging to dangerous lows, the city’s homeless, like George, are still finding refuge with the CTA instead of shelters and warming centers.

“Most of them are not taking people over night,” George said. “You got to be there when the beds are out. Or ride the train, you know. From 9 to 9. Howard to 95th. Sleeping on the train, mostly.”

The harsh weather of the last three months ended up making the 2013 – 2014 winter the third coldest and snowiest Chicago has seen according to the National Weather Service. Between December and February Chicagoans have seen 67.4 inches of snow and an average temperature of 18.8 degrees. Such low temperatures are extremely dangerous when according to the National Institute on Aging, a home or apartment heated to 60 to 65 degrees may not be adequate enough to fend of hypothermia. Just a few degrees drop in body temperature can cause heart complications leading to death.

The cold and snow made everything this winter far more difficult as the City of Chicago was forced to go well over the budget allotted for snow removal, borrowing from the Motor Fuel Tax Fund to keep our streets functioning. Finally with the month of March nearing its end, does it seem that Chicago is starting to warm up.

It’s enough to make the most weather-hardened Chicagoans stay indoors.

But what about those who do not have the luxury?

The City’s Warming Centers
According to the City of Chicago Data Portal, there are 113 locations designated as warming centers across the city. These locations include senior centers, libraries, park district buildings and police stations. Surprisingly, these locations, though providing options for the city’s homeless, have limited hours of operation. The mostly operate during business hours, but provide no safe refuge in the evening and overnight hours when the bitter temperatures are at their worst.

During the warming center’s open hours, Robert, like many in his situation, was huddled under a doorway near the Wilson Red Line Stop relying on passersby to help him afford lunch at the nearest McDonalds. He was just a few blocks from the North Area Center, which was void of any homeless seeking warmth.

Of those 113 centers, only the six Department of Family and Support Services operated by the city are clearly noted on fliers and the city website. They are few and far between, accessible mostly by bus, but not always by El, leaving those in need with the choice of a long frigid walk or finding warmth elsewhere. The remaining 107 locations are only found on the data portal or through contacting 311.

The DFSS centers are open when the temperatures dip down below 32 degrees, but only during weekdays between the hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with the exception of the DFSS operated Garfield Center at 10 S. Kedzie Avenue, which is open 24-hours for those in need of emergency shelter. Aside from finding a bed at a shelter, the Garfield Center is the only option to stay warm after business hours without having to turn to CTA.

The CTA, a Path of Least Resistance
While Chicagoans braced themselves for the second coming of the “Polar Vortex,” a homeless man stood in the tunnel connecting the Blue and Red Line Jackson stops, clutching a CTA garbage bag filled with his belongings and asking commuters for help.

“I’m in a shelter, 200 S. Sacramento,” Robert said. “I’m returning Monday. I’m going to O’Hare.”

It was Tuesday night, Monday almost a full week away and temperatures were continuing to drop. Robert had six days before he planned to go back to the Walls Memorial Overnight Shelter, and was spending them on the Blue Line.

Robert was not alone in his decision to spend his time on the El when this winter was at its worst. This flux of the homeless population living on rail cars during the record cold even lead to reports of feces on CTA trains.

To accommodate the homeless and avoid any future problems, the CTA joined with social service agencies to help bring awareness of other warming options with increased nightly patrols. In response to the sanitary issue, the CTA’s pool of servicers grew to more than 130 personnel to ensure that each rail car was clean before departing on its next run.

Joe Schwieterman, a DePaul professor and expert on urban transportation, weighed in on why the homeless choose the CTA as a sanctuary against the elements.

“The homeless suffering from depression or even mental illness often need encouragement to get off transit and go to the shelters,” Schwieterman said.  “Expecting them to navigate their way to [a warming center like in] Uptown alone, with all the problems they face, may be overly optimistic.”

Schwieterman sees the CTA as the path of least resistance for many of the homeless.  It allows the homeless population to maintain a sense of independence and event catch some sleep without much fear of being thrown off the bus or train.

“Spending time in the shelters can be more stressful than jumping on a train due to lingering concern over the awkward social situations that can emerge in shelters,” Schwieterman said.   

Although the CTA may be the easy choice for some, raising awareness of shelters and warming centers and encouraging the homeless to take part in programs could be the best over-all solution for the homeless as well as those inconvenienced by the cleanliness of the CTA.

Freddie, one of Chicago’s homeless, braves the weather in order to try to get something to  eat before retreating back into the Red Line for the night. (Photo/Kenny Reiter)






















 City Warming Centers Map

Searchable map: City of Chicago warming
centers in relation to CTA train lines. (Map/Kenny Reiter)











Chicago Homeless Photo

Where Chicago's homeless seek warmth. (Photo/Bob Bailey)





A Safe Haven

This can be quite the task, as shelters like A Safe Haven at 2750 W Roosevelt Rd., rely heavily on word-of-mouth and the city to reach out to the homeless population.

Neli Vazquez-Rowland, president of A Safe Haven, and her team provide interim housing for Chicago’s homeless who are looking to get back on their feet. A Safe Haven has helped more than 44,000 individuals and provides services daily to 1,200. Vazquez-Rowland said that 70 percent of the program’s clients who were suffering from addiction have remained sober for three years, which is more than five times the national average.

The goal of A Safe Haven is to help the homeless get from homelessness to self-sufficiency. The Roosevelt location currently houses 400 men, women and children on a daily basis, providing three meals a day, education and referrals. There are two additional, smaller locations on the West and South sides. Unlike an emergency shelter, residents usually stay four to six months.

Sterling Gildersleeve, the Director of Programs and Operations, explained how A Safe Haven strayed this past winter from its normal operations of providing more long-term housing to accommodate those with no where to go.

“We actually got to the point were we had to ask the city for cots,” Gildersleeve said. “Usually our structure is that of the interim housing, long term, but during this cold spell, we had beds that we set up just to get people off the street.”

Their overnight youth shelter acts almost like an emergency shelter, where the city’s young homeless can stay just one night or more if they choose no matter the weather. They may only be funded for 25 beds in the youth shelter, but in times dangerous cold, Gildersleeve said the city has asked them to open up their doors, which they are more than happy to do.

This is not an uncommon practice for homeless shelters to take in more than they initially have beds for. According to the homeless shelter system monthly utilization report available on the city’s data portal, it is not unusual to see the percentage of interim and shelter beds used overnight to rise above 100 percent in months with extreme temperatures.

Because of the size of the facility at A Safe Haven, they are able to make it their policy not to turn anyone away. And although they offer CTA passes with medical and job referrals and so the homeless individual can return, Gildersleeve said it’s never because they can’t stay at A Safe Haven.

Chicago’s Homeless Population
According to Chicago’s Plan 2.0 Semiannual Progress Report from August 2013, the homeless population of Chicago has decreased by 4 percent overall compared to the last survey done in 2011. The total number of homeless individuals in Chicago for 2013 was 6,276. Despite the total percentage of homeless falling, the percent of homeless veterans was up 3 percent and Chicago Public School students who identified themselves as homeless was up 8 percent in 2013 from 2012.

This survey of the homeless population is part of Chicago’s Point-in-time Homeless Count, and is conducted yearly by a group of volunteers. The goal of the count is to ensure that Chicago receives adequate federal homeless funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Development. Aside from gaining funding for the homeless, the city uses the data for the planning of future homeless services and to raise public awareness.

Getting an accurate count of the city’s homeless population can be difficult, and Plan 2.0’s implementation priority is to increase the capacity and accuracy of Chicago’s data collection methods. But there's a notable footnote on the bottom of page 3 of the semiannual report, “Count did not include persons on the Chicago Transit Authority."

The forgotten passengers.

Editor’s note: Only first names were used for the identities of the homeless sources for this story.

Posted: Tuesday, April 22, 2014


Jackson Red Line Stop Photo

Trains and Loop subway tunnel platforms provide warmth during the sub-zero temperatures. (Photo/Kenny Reiter)













"If it gets too cold, get on a

bus or train and ride it."

-- Advice given to the homeless,
according to Nick Benedetto,
Franciscan Outreach.
Read more
| Watch








To Help
To  find out where the homeless can stay warm call 311 or visit the City of Chicago’s official website. If you wish to get involved with A Safe Haven call (773) 435-8358 to speak with a volunteer coordinator or email volunteer@asafehaven.org.  To register as a volunteer for the city’s next headcount, or if you have any questions or concerns, please email homelesscount@cityofchicago.org or call (312) 746-8610.     

Read More — Stories on the homeless from The Red Line Project: