Thread Bare Gloves: Urban observations from a polar vortex

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Last month, Chicago shared some of the coldest temperatures on Earth with a number of other communities throughout the Midwest. This blog begins by celebrating the efforts of both non-profit organizations and first-responders alike in mitigating mortality tolls during a -45 degree Fahrenheit (F) winter storm.  Likewise, how that celebration offers up evidence of how we could do better, regarding the homeless, the rest of the year. Specifically, I am addressing how effective Chicago public servants were at saving the lives of thousands during a winter weather emergency and questioning why there is not more public and political will concerning the safety and lives of the homeless during better weather.

On January 29th (Field notes), I wrote down the following passage:

I never thought that I would live in a place where my winter accoutrements are thread bare. Although on my walk home yesterday from work, I realized, when looking at my worn fleece gloves, that I do now. Chicago is set to be the coldest place around tomorrow.  We are expecting temperatures of nearly fifty below zero. That makes us colder than the top of Mt. Everest, one of the most desolate places and single highest peak on planet Earth.

Generally, I save essays for Imagining Justice for the critical and often abstract arguments—but this seems like a good time to ground a short piece in a stark material reality; inclement weather, the homeless, and the efforts of social services—yes, even the police. And, while being less critical in a space like Imagining Justice leaves me open to initial critique, it’s also like walking to work through a Chicago winter, so I’ll schlep forward.

Jan. 30, 2019 12:25 (Field notes)

The temperature is -35 degrees F today.  There are times when people come together because they have to. An anecdotal tidbit that my partner and 2-year-old beagle just experienced is an indication of the current polar vortex. Huck was about 60 yards from the door to the building when he just laid down and started to whimper, as his feet were painfully cold. Heather [my partner] picked him up and quickly carried him inside. It literally hurts to take a breath right now. This is the kind of cold forces even animals to submit.

During the now famous Polar Vortex of January 2019, it has been reported that 21 people died in the region as a result of arctic conditions (Gajanan, 2019). This includes the whole Midwest corridor most effected by the inclement weather. Of course, my observations and field notes are limited to the city of Chicago. And certainly, there were losses throughout the region of the noted tragedies for which we should be mindful.


What is the scope of homelessness in Chicago?  According to the advocacy group Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), “16,000 people live on the streets and in its homeless shelters. That number is estimated to jump to nearly 80,000 when people who are couch surfing or seeking shelter with friends or family are taken into account” (Hignett, 2019, para. 4). This type of living with others can be referred to as doubling-up, or sharing quarters with others due to hardships.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Communities Survey, 64,114 people lived doubled-up in Chicago in 2016. Of that population in 2016, 55.5% were black, 33.1% Latinx, 6.5% white, and 4.9% others. These numbers are staggering at best. Staggering both in the shear numerical weight of this phenomenon, but also more specifically—the estimated growth of 19.8% of definable homelessness between 2016 and 2018. As someone who primarily walks and takes public transit to work every day, witnessing urban homelessness was a real factor in becoming attuned to the city from a rural perspective. The number of people panhandling, street performing, or otherwise hustling for money took some getting used to, if that is possible. While the height of the Chicago skyline can be intoxicating as a symbol of opportunity/progress, it strikes me that the social crevasses that people fall into are as deep as some of the famous skyscrapers are tall. These thoughts are particularly acute during the inclement weather that occurs four and a half months into winter.

As soon as weather reports began projecting the frigid temperatures and seriousness of the polar vortex, provisions quickly followed. During the days leading up to the storm the city reported that they would be “operating six warming centers, two of which will be open 24 hours a day, and using buses and public buildings as warming facilities” (Lutz, 2019, para. 8). I read and heard through multiple mediums that every library, firehouse, and police station was functioning as shelter. The efforts of volunteers and first responders were astonishing considering this Sisyphean task.

After the Polar Vortex Time Magazine reported, “In Chicago, temperatures dropped to around negative 21 degrees, while Milwaukee recorded minus 25 degrees and Minneapolis reported negative 24 degrees. Wind chills made things even colder” (Gajanan, 2019, para. 3). This means that frostbite occurs in 3-15 minutes. Reports of wind chill factors of -45 were measured. Living near the Lakeshore north in a neighborhood named Edgewater, I can attest that it is in fact, cooler by the lake.

But all jokes aside, perhaps this is the place to iterate Ferrell’s recent book of illicit mobility, Drift. Wherein the author describes a global environmental and economic crisis stating:

In the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States, the corporate criminality of the past decade’s mortgage/banking crisis, the ongoing destruction of low-cost housing as part of urban redevelopment schemes, and the proliferation of part-time and low-wage service work all conspire to preclude certainties of home, shelter, or destination (2018, p. 6).

Assuming that late-modern capital will generate more homelessness, and climate change will further increase the displaced populations of environmental refugees through events such as inclement weather, this polar vortex offers more to consider.

The now famous Polar Vortex certainly holds a memorable space in our on-going Chicago experience.  This experience deepened my concern for, and awareness of, homelessness in this city. CCH’s Executive Director Schenkelburg told Newsweek, “Homelessness exists 365 days a year. . . It’s important to rise to the occasion in these emergencies, but its equally important to work toward ending homelessness when the emergency passes” (Hignett, 2019, para. 13). This sentiment becomes the real thesis of this short blog; the success of “coming together” during such a brutal weather event proves that given the impetus—public and political will—we can do better.

Edward LW Green

Roosevelt University


Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Retrieved from

Ferrell, J. (2018). Drift: Illicit Mobility and Uncertain Knowledge. University of California Press.

Gajanan, M. (2019, Feb. 1). “21 people Died in Weather-Related Incidents During the Polar Vortex.” Time. Retrieved from

Hignett, K. (2019, Jan. 29). “Polar Vortex: Chicago’s Homeless Struggle In The Bitter Cold.” Newsweek. Retrieved from

Lutz, E. (2019, Jan. 31). “Chicago rallies to protect homeless people from polar vortex.” The Guardian Weekly.  Retrieved from


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