SOCIAL ISSUES : Homeless Turn Cold Shoulder to Shelters : Chicago winters can be deadly, but despite coaxing, many street people won’t go indoors. Drugs, alcohol add to risk.


There are few forces of persuasion more powerful than a Chicago winter. Yet when wind chills here begin their annual fall to depths low enough to freeze human skin, it still takes artful persuaders to convince the hardiest of die-hards to come in from the cold.

As temperatures plunge toward zero and below, teams of Chicago emergency services workers take to the streets to cajole transients into coming indoors for the night. Most of the city’s estimated 15,000 street people comply eagerly, filling up many of Chicago’s 5,500 available shelter beds.

But even in conditions cold enough to bring on instant hypothermia, in wind chills known to drop as low as minus 60 degrees, a stubborn group of hard-core street people refuses to leave makeshift hovels. They burrow under mounds of old blankets, newspapers and clothes.

Many of those braving the cold bed down on Chicago’s Lower Wacker Drive, the bottom tier of a two-layer downtown street lined with loading docks. There, every winter, life-and-death debates begin again under the glare of sodium-vapor lights as city workers plead with shivering street people--some cold sober, some giddy from wine and cocaine--to come inside.


When the frozen night approaches, Carmelo Vargas, Chicago’s director of emergency services, joins his regular crews of homeless workers out on the street. They drive repeatedly through Lower Wacker and its warren of truck docks, urging transients to seek shelter. Even when they are spurned, their endless rounds serve another purpose--ensuring that those sleeping in the cold at least remain alive and healthy.

On one recent morning, with the wind chill factor frozen at minus 25, Vargas sat bare-headed in his city car at a loading dock, hunched over coffee and cigarettes. As the car’s heater roared, Vargas quickly found himself a captive audience--a revolving group of homeless men who had slept on the street the night before and now sought a few minutes of warmth inside.

“How cold was it for you last night?” Vargas asked a bearded man wrapped like a mummy to ward off the cold.

“I got five jackets on and I was shaking like a baby,” said the man, who identified himself as Richard. He also wore three pairs of threadbare pants, a wool watch cap and a pair of work gloves and had covered himself with five blankets. “My teeth ached.”


“There you are,” Vargas said. “And you want to be out there again tonight?”

Vargas patiently explained Richard’s list of options. The city and private agencies provide shelters offering rooms for the night, shelters offering 24-hour facilities, “warming centers,” where transients can drop in for a few hours to thaw, housing programs designed to find permanent shelter. Even in the iciest of cold snaps, said Daniel Alvarez, the city’s director of human services, there are usually enough vacancies to accommodate even those homeless insistent on staying outdoors.

But Richard, like many on Lower Wacker, was dubious. He and 27 other transients had been on the street the night before, cramming themselves inside cubbyholes beneath loading docks. Their survival, even for one night, had given them reason to believe they could make it through another night.

“I’m an independent man,” said Richard, 43, who spent six years in prison for armed robbery before turning to street life and a steady diet of Richard’s Wild Irish Rose wine in 1992. “I don’t want no shelter enforcing religion on me. I don’t want to get cut or beaten up in some shelter that’s supposed to be safe. I want to come and go as I please.”


Freedom, even the freedom to freeze to death, is a cherished right among the homeless of Lower Wacker.

“This is our choice, right?” said Aubrey Scott, 35, another ex-con bundled up in sweaters and a jacket. Scott also had holed up on Lower Wacker the night before, but he normally shuttles between the street and transient hotels.

Many of those who stay outside worsen their risks by drinking or taking drugs, said Rick Roberts, director of the Chicago Industrial League’s shelter, the largest in Illinois. Inebriated, they fail to bundle up properly or walk out unprotected, becoming prey to temperatures that can bring about hypothermia after only a few minutes. Last year, during an epic winter of minus 60 wind chills, nine street people were hospitalized for serious frostbite, Vargas said.

Even that threat did not move Richard. It was not until Vargas mentioned the possibility of a room at a YMCA that the homeless man pursed his lips, the first signal he might consider coming in from the cold.


Still, when Richard moved for the door, he was not yet ready to commit.

“If it’s what you say, maybe I’ll try it.”

Vargas nodded.

“Once you’ve got them thinking, you’re halfway home,” he said, satisfied. “You watch. He’ll be off the street tonight.”