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Checking on homeless as subzero temps loom: ‘They like that we just show up’

Members of The Night Ministry's Street Medicine Outreach Team talk on Tuesday to Karen, 53, who was living in a tent in a homeless encampment near South Paulina and West 16th streets. The Street Medicine team provides people living in homeless encampments with supplies, such as clothing, tents and toiletries, to help them stay warm during dangerously cold temperatures. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Dr. Ralph Ryan was determined to visit as many tents in as many homeless encampments as possible Tuesday.

He also decided he wouldn’t just move on to the next tent if no one responded to his announcement: “Night Ministry! How are you doing in there? Do you need anything? Any help? I’m a doctor.”

With temperatures plummeting to life-threatening levels, he was prepared to break protocol and pop his head through a flap, uninvited, to make sure occupants were alive.

Thankfully, one after another, the tent zippers slid down — though usually only a few inches, so what little heat was trapped inside wouldn’t escape.

Ryan, a retired cardiologist, regularly volunteers in the street medicine van operated by Night Ministry, a North Side non-profit. The van rolls the city’s streets five nights a week, providing healthcare, supplies and kindness.

Video by Ashlee Rezin | Members of The Night Ministry's Street Medicine Outreach Team visit a homeless encampment near South Arc

Karen, a 53-year-old woman who pitched a tent along a Pilsen underpass, ticked off the clothes she was wearing after Ryan inspected her feet.

“Pants, sweatpants, long underwear, a long sleeve shirt, two sweatshirts, a jacket, two pairs of socks. And sneakers,” she said. “And five blankets when I sleep,” she said.

They might not be enough, she admitted, to protect against what, beginning Tuesday night, could prove to be one of the coldest stretches in the city’s history.

“The doc said my feet look OK,” she said. “I know they’re there. But they’re numb. My hands are OK because I keep them by the fire, plus I sit on them.”

Ralph Ryan, a doctor and volunteer member of The Night Ministry’s Street Medicine Outreach Team, shows a bag of supplies the team is providing to a man living inside a tent in a homeless encampment on the Southwest Side. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Ralph Ryan, a doctor and volunteer member of The Night Ministry’s Street Medicine Outreach Team, shows a bag of supplies the team is providing to a man living inside a tent in a homeless encampment on the Southwest Side. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A small charcoal grill is her main heat source during waking hours. People with kind hearts regularly drop off charcoal and lighter fluid, she said.

“Call 311 if you need a lift,” said Len Strauch, who, along with a former suburban cop who drives the van, rounds out the crew.

Strauch put a list of warming shelters into her hands, along with a cigarette — he doesn’t smoke, but knows they go a long way toward building rapport.

“I might have to go a shelter,” she admitted.

Piping-hot water was poured into a small cup and mixed with powdered soup and handed to her, as well as an extra pair of socks and hand warmers.

Later, while heading to the next encampment, the street medicine crew lamented that they couldn’t put much stock in her words.

“They tell us what they think we want to hear a lot of the time,” Ryan said.

A “homeless” cardboard sign can be seen on the ground outside a tent in a homeless encampment on the Southwest Side, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. The Night Ministry’s Street Medicine Outreach Team provides people living in homeless encampments with supplies, s
A “homeless” cardboard sign can be seen on the ground outside a tent in a homeless encampment on the Southwest Side, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. The Night Ministry’s Street Medicine Outreach Team provides people living in homeless encampments with supplies, such as clothing, tents and toiletries, to help them stay warm during dangerously cold temperatures. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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Drugs, mental illness and fear of losing possessions that cannot be carried to a shelter are common obstacles.

About 80,000 people in Chicago are homeless or have unstable living situations that put them on the verge of being homeless, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

When a man named Jerry stepped out of a tent in a Chinatown underpass, the layer of frost covering his winter hat concerned Ryan. The man agreed he needed to be inside — for a little while, at least. So he was driven to a library down the road.

“Knowing they get treated like humans is huge. So many people don’t even look them in the eye. They like that we just show up all the time,” Ryan said.

Nearby, a man named Brian poked his head out of a tent the size of an SUV that was pitched beneath a highway interchange.

A propane heater inside was keeping temperatures near 70 degrees, he said.

Members of The Night Ministry’s Street Medicine Outreach Team talk to Brian, who was living inside a tent in a homeless encampment on the Southwest Side, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. The Street Medicine team provides people living in homeless encampments with
Members of The Night Ministry’s Street Medicine Outreach Team talk to Brian, who was living inside a tent in a homeless encampment on the Southwest Side, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. The Street Medicine team provides people living in homeless encampments with supplies, such as clothing, tents and toiletries, to help them stay warm during dangerously cold temperatures. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ryan checked his body temperature with a device he stuck in the man’s ear and it was normal.

“I’ve been through 30-degree below temperatures,” he said. “I’ll be OK.”

The Night Ministry, a non-denominational group, stocks its street medicine van with donated clothes, sleeping bags, tents and other necessities to assist life on the street.

A group of University of Illinois at Chicago Medical students run a similar street medicine operation on a smaller scale.

The city does not provide such front-line curbside medical services to the homeless. But the city, unlike street medicine crews, reserves the right to use force to get someone to safety.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Family and Support Services emailed the Sun-Times:

“As a City we always want to be respectful of the rights of residents. However, extreme cold presents great health risks, and individuals may be transported to a hospital for medical treatment in cases where there is a threat to their health and safety.”

Ralph Ryan, a doctor and volunteer member of The Night Ministry’s Street Medicine Outreach Team, talks to someone inside a tent in a homeless encampment near South Archer and South Stewart avenues, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. The Street Medicine team provides
Ralph Ryan, a doctor and volunteer member of The Night Ministry’s Street Medicine Outreach Team, talks to someone inside a tent in a homeless encampment near South Archer and South Stewart avenues, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. The Street Medicine team provides people living in homeless encampments with supplies, such as clothing, tents and toiletries, to help them stay warm during dangerously cold temperatures. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

For more information about the Night Ministries and how to get involved or donate, go to thenightministry.org/.