September 2, 2014
As temperatures dipped to where frostbite could find its way through gloves — with any exposed skin sliced by a withering wind chill — the homeless came in record numbers.
The 155,000-square-foot Pacific Garden Mission, the city’s largest homeless shelter, has been around since 1877, but it was this week’s brutal cold that brought an all-time high of 1,050 homeless Chicagoans seeking refuge overnight.
“We’re placing people anywhere we can, using classrooms, offices, auditorium, moving seats to make available floor space,” said the Rev. Phil Kwiatkowski, president of the mission.
“That’s really saying something,” he said. “It’s better to be in a facility that’s a little crowded than outside where it’s a matter of life and death.”
The record low temperatures hit 16 below zero at O’Hare on Monday morning, with wind chills at minus 42 at points.
“It’s pretty bad. No one can stay out here too long,” said Reginald Winslow, 55, stepping out to smoke a cigarette.
He arrived at the shelter Friday. His mother, with whom he’d been living, died in 2007, and he ended up on the streets. Three years in the penitentiary for burglary followed. He just got out in November.
Carolyn Hill, 54, was a victim of downsizing. A year ago, she lost her job of 10 years, working with mentally ill children at an agency in Champaign. She had spent 10 years at another agency before that.
“I came up to Chicago, lived with family awhile and couldn’t find a job,” she said. “I came to Pacific when I felt I’d overstayed my welcome. This place has been a blessing.”
In the day rooms of the faith-based, nondenominational nonprofit at 1458 S. Canal, homeless people filled every nook and cranny, overflowing into the auditorium and halls.
Pacific Garden offers long- and short-term shelter and transitional support services.
“I don’t want to be here. I don’t like it,” said Ruby Sutton, 30, who has been there for three months with her 2-year-old son Mario, after being evicted in August.
“But I have no other place to go,” she said, venturing out in the cold to buy food.
For 45-year-old Darnell Williams, the shelter is a cherished “home.”
“I love this place. They’re good to you here, and I try to help out any way I can,” said Williams, who arrived there in 2008 when his mother died.
He had just returned to the shelter after going out to a part-time day job.
“It wasn’t too bad out there, bundled up,” he said. “Anyway, it isn’t worse than ’78.”