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Cooling Centers Close Too Early Amid Dangerous Heat, Putting Residents — Especially Those Who Are Homeless — At Risk, Some Say

Chicago activated cooling centers around the city this week — but many of them close at 5 p.m., even as temperatures stayed dangerously warm.

Tents are set up at a houseless encampment at Touhy Park in Rogers Park on Nov. 18, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Advocates for people experiencing homelessness are calling on the city to extend the hours cooling centers are open as Chicago is in the midst of dangerous heat.

City libraries, park field houses and six community centers serve as cooling centers where any resident can go for air conditioning and water when temperatures spike. The city opened them this week as the city faced near-record-high temperatures, with some days feeling warmer than 100 degrees.

But the majority of the centers close at or before 5 p.m. Only one — the Garfield Center, 10 S. Kedzie Ave. — is open 24 hours.

Limiting the centers to those hours is a risk for residents who are still dealing with high heat in the evening, said Doug Schenkelberg, executive director of Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. And the heat is a particular danger to the more than 58,000 people experiencing homelessness in Chicago and other residents without air conditioning, he said.

“If someone is in danger because of the heat and they’re utilizing the cooling center to be safe, they need to be able to stay there until the conditions subside,” Schenkelberg said. “At 5 p.m. with the advisory still in effect, you’re sending people back outside with no place to go.”

RELATED: Here’s How To Stay Safe During This Week’s Dangerous Heat In Chicago

Chicago’s latest heat advisory, which warns of dangerously warm temperatures that could cause heat-related illness, is in effect until 8 p.m. Wednesday.

“This is just poor planning on the part of the city,” Schenkelberg said. “They need to adjust the hours when there’s a real heat emergency. They shut down the cooling centers at 5 no matter what the actual conditions are. I’m hopeful the city will adapt.” 

The city has a robust network of cooling centers, but it did not extend their hours this week like it has during past extreme weather, Schenkelberg said.

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless didn’t hear back from the Department of Family and Support Services when it reached out to the city agency about keeping centers open longer, Schenkelberg said.

Joseph Dutra, a spokesman for the Department of Family and Support Services, said the agency uses cooling centers “as safe spaces for residents seeking refuge and relief from the weather during the daytime hours.”

“Our Homeless Outreach team and our delegate agencies provide regular, daily outreach to unsheltered individuals across the city,” Dutra said in a statement. “Our teams build relationships with individuals experiencing homelessness and will also be connecting individuals to shelters, cooling centers, water and other resources in the coming days.”

People experiencing homelessness who want to go to a shelter can also call 311 for transportation, Dutra said.

LaRon Jordan, a resident experiencing homelessness, said he went to the Garfield Center after 5 p.m. Tuesday to escape the heat. Jordan waited in line for hours in a room without air conditioning just to get into the center — which was already at capacity, he said.

“We’re just sitting up here sweating, trying to find a place to stay,” Jordan said. “Where else are we going to go?”

On hot nights when Jordan can’t sleep outside, he’s resorted to riding “L” trains. But that’s fraught, too, as the CTA struggles with crime and violence. 

Robert Wilson, another resident experiencing homelessness, said he stopped sleeping on the trains during extreme weather due to the violence. He went to a cooling center Tuesday morning but was told it was already at capacity, he said.

“It’s hard to find a place to stay cool. And there’s nowhere to go in the evening,” Wilson said. “Y’all let the homeless come for a few hours and you kick them out.” 

Jordan, who is 69 years old, said he just wants a cool place to get some rest. 

“They need to listen to people and find out their needs,” Jordan said. “It’s that simple.” 

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