Evanston homeless shelter open more often than usual due to cold start to 2014

Ciara McCarthy, City Editor

A local nonprofit has increased its shelter assistance to Evanston homeless residents in response to extreme temperatures early this year.

Though Evanston does not have round-the-clock refuge for the homeless, Interfaith Action opens an overnight shelter when the temperature is 5 degrees or lower. The shelter is normally open no more than five times a year, said Susan Murphy, the director of Interfaith Action.

Interfaith has opened its overnight shelter 14 times this year, Murphy said. At least 20 people have shown up at the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 1004 Greenwood St., each night it’s been open this year.

“In the five years we’ve been doing this, we’ve never been open this often,” Murphy said.

In addition to providing a warm place to sleep, Interfaith’s overnight shelter offers cots, blankets and hot drinks. Interfaith only has 25 cots, however, and often accepts more people than can comfortably sleep there on cold nights, Murphy said.

Sue Calder, the vice chair of Evanston’s Housing and Homelessness Commission, said this winter has been extremely challenging for the homeless. Non-governmental organizations provide most of the resources available to homeless residents in the winter, Calder said.

Evanston has opened overnight warming shelters several times in 2014, Murphy said. The city has used Robert Crown Community Center, 1701 Main St., as a warming center during extreme cold temperatures. The center is underutilized among guests, however, because it is not centrally located, Murphy said. When more than 25 people come to Interfaith’s shelter, the city pays for cabs to transport the additional guests to Robert Crown when the center operates as a shelter, Murphy added. Interfaith and Evanston are currently discussing ways to care for Evanston’s homeless during future cold temperatures.

The cold weather has also had serious health implications for homeless residents. Murphy said she knew at least two men who regularly go to Interfaith’s overnight shelter who have been hospitalized due to severe frostbite.

“I’ve never seen that kind of frostbite where it’s just blisters on their fingers,” she said.

Multiple men had suffered milder forms of frostbite, she said.

Because Evanston lacks a 24-hour shelter, homeless residents tend to drift from warming center to soup kitchen to public areas like the library to stay warm during the day. Calder said many ride public transportation to stay out of the cold.

Interfaith’s shelter provides only a temporary solution to Evanston’s cold winter, but Murphy said the service is important.

“We can’t solve the problem,” she said. “But it helps.”

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