Not a wonderland; Chicago copes with Christmas weekend cold

“It’s my first winter out here and it’s damn cold,” said Theodore Thompson, 61, after enduring a brutal Thursday night of subzero temperatures in a tent near the Dan Ryan Expressway.

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Steam rises from Lake Michigan obscuring the view of the Chicago skyline, as brutal cold temperatures are recored in Chicago, Friday, Dec. 23, 2022.

Steam rises above an icy Lake Michigan, shrouding the Chicago skyline on Friday, a day where brutal cold slammed the city.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Theodore Thompson’s tent broke the same night that life-threatening cold descended on Chicago.

“It’s my first winter out here and it’s damn cold,” Thompson, 61, said Friday after enduring a brutal Thursday night of subzero temperatures. “I’m not good.”

For the past year, Thompson, a Louisiana native, has lived near Roosevelt Road and Desplaines Street, one of a dozen people staying in tents overlooking the expressway.

They are among thousands of unhoused people in Chicago. Many have gone to shelters to escape the cold; others, like Thompson, are struggling to find help.

Across the city, people faced an arctic blast that made travel, last-minute shopping or even just a brief walk outside difficult. The Chicago area remained under a winter weather warning, with high winds kicking up snow and driving down temperatures. The official reading at O’Hare at 11:30 a.m. was minus 4, up from minus 8 hours earlier. Wind chills as low as minus 40 were recorded.

A man walks by a city information digital signboard with an Emergency Alert on Friday, Dec. 23, 2022.

A winter weather warning did not keep everyone inside on Friday, despite subzero wind chills.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Overnight lows again were going to be around zero degrees, with temperatures expected to climb into the double digits, finally, by Saturday afternoon.

But those relatively mild temperatures were but a distant dream on Friday morning, when Earl Warren was outside the Garfield Community Service Center, a city warming center in East Garfield Park.

Warren clenched a cigarette between trembling fingers and took pleasure where he could find it.

“At least the sun is starting to come out,” the 53-year-old said.

Flags snapped in the wind outside the center. Snow eddied on the sidewalk.

There was a lot of coming and going Friday from the hulking facility, one of the city’s 24-hour warming centers. Firefighters shuffled in at one point with a gurney to wheel out a man complaining of frostbite.

About two dozen people sat in a large room beneath fluorescent strip lighting, some dozing, others staring at a tiny tube TV in a corner of the room.

A woman wearing a full-length faux fur coat stood outside, too. The hem of her jeans was torn, her shoelaces untied. She said she was waiting for the nearby dollar store to open.

“I just finished with Harvard and Yale,” she said. “I’m an attorney.”

Meanwhile, Warren, who is homeless, was considering where he would sleep Friday night. He’s originally from Philadelphia but has been living in Chicago for four or five months, he said. He has has family, “but no ties.”

He’d been staying at a nearby shelter, he said, but got fed up with it.

“It’s like sardines in there. I was trying to get some space,” he said, taking another drag on his cigarette.

A commuter walks from a bus stop on Roosevelt Road in the West Loop on Friday, Dec. 23, 2022.

A commuter walks from a bus stop on Roosevelt Road in the West Loop on Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Keeping the heat on in any building can be a challenge in such weather, so it should not be surprising that several Chicago-area furnace repair companies reported being very busy Friday.

That included Guardian Heating and Cooling in the Old Irving Park neighborhood, where office manager Andrea Lange said they were booked up for the day by 10 a.m.

Lange urged people to not turn off their furnaces at night when they’re sleeping because it can take up to 24 hours to get it back to a desirable daytime temperature.

And it’s a good idea to check whether the furnace filter needs replacing, she said.

At Clark Devon Hardware on the North Side, some customers sought guidance on thawing frozen pipes; store staff recommended heating them up “gently” with a space heater or fan — and definitely not an open flame.

Meanwhile, rock salt or other ice-melting products, as well as shovels and snowblowers were all in high demand this week.

“People are stocking up,” said Jay Fuentes, a manager at the sprawling store. “They are saying, ‘Oh, my goodness, it’s a storm!’”

Back by the Dan Ryan, the only shelter Theodore Thompson had to keep him warm was his tent.

It’s one of many Arctic-grade tents built and paid for by a Pilsen plant shop owner — but just when the storm hit, the zipper on the door stopped working.

Later Friday, a stroke of luck — the man who built the tent he was staying in, Andy Robledo, stopped by the encampment.

Robledo, 37, arrived just before sunset to make sure everyone was keeping warm. He dropped off hot food, several propane canisters for heaters inside the tents and fixed Thompson’s tent.

“They’re holding,” Robledo said. “They’re keeping people safe and warm.”

Morgan McCluckie, 27, distributes a heater to a person experiencing homelessness on the side of the Dan Ryan Expressway in the West Loop, Friday, Dec. 23, 2022.

Morgan McCluckie, 27, provides a heater to a person living in a tent by the Dan Ryan Expressway on Friday, a day when wind chills dipped to minus 40 degrees.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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