FEB 16, 2021
By SABINA WONG, MD
Associate Clinic Coordinator
PCC Clinic at The Boulevard
Op-ed: During this deep freeze, here’s how to protect Chicago’s homeless
It’s another bitter Chicago winter, with wind chills of 30 degrees below zero for the second week in a row and snow piled up in heaps. For those of us already staying home to avoid COVID-19, dropping temperatures just means minimizing the time we spend outdoors and bundling up if we do decide to venture out.
But for the 1,529 Chicagoans out on the streets on a given night and the 3,861 individuals living in temporary shelter, dangerously cold weather could mean losing fingers or toes to frostbite, or even dying from hypothermia. These figures from the annual Chicago “Point-in-Time” count taken in 2020 reflect a 2% increase from 2019, and the 2021 numbers that were collected at the end of January may be even higher.
Last week, I cared for a man with frostbite on all 10 toes, extending to the ball of his foot on both sides. The tissue was black, slightly shriveled and unlikely to be saved from amputation. As a family medicine physician, I see these cases of irreparable damage all too often, and I wonder — how can we stop this tragedy from happening again?
The city’s warming stations and overnight shelters offer some relief but capacity is limited, especially now that COVID-19 restrictions require 6-foot spacing between beds. Overall, these measures — while important in a crisis — are too little and too late for a problem that’s many times worse than most people realize. A report released by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless in May 2020 found that 76,998 Chicagoans experienced homelessness in a single year when “homeless” was defined to include those doubled up with friends or family. Meanwhile, due to the COVID-19-related economic downturn, an estimated 250,000 additional households in Cook County are at risk for eviction when the federal moratorium expires in March. Once evicted, people experiencing homelessness also face higher rates of poverty, school absenteeism, involvement in the criminal justice system and health problems.
With so much at stake and the frigid weather reminding us how vulnerable humans are without housing, now is the time to protect people from homeless-induced suffering by investing in homelessness prevention.
While Congress negotiates how much COVID-19 relief will be distributed as rental assistance, city leaders must pass legislation to protect people from losing their homes, especially when they are without fault. Eviction of rent-paying tenants in favor of more profitable arrangements represented an estimated 25% of Chicago’s annual 23,466 eviction filings pre-pandemic. These evictions have resulted in displacement and rent-increasing gentrification in many of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. Furthermore, these unfair evictions make it difficult for displaced individuals to find housing. An eviction, no matter how unjust, is a disqualifier for many landlords.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Just Cause for Eviction is an ordinance backed by the Chicago Housing Justice League and supported by more than 64 community organizations. If passed, Just Cause would end no-fault evictions and require landlords to pay relocation assistance to renters who are evicted for non-tenant-related reasons, such as taking a unit off the market or moving in a relative.
These measures would stabilize renters and shield them from a path toward homelessness and its sometimes irreversible physical and mental health effects. As tenants feel more secure in their homes, they become more reliable, prioritizing rent payments and taking better care of the property. This is a good return on the investment made by landlords and city leaders alike.
To be sure, Just Cause by itself is not enough to save us from the looming eviction crisis caused by COVID-19. However, it’s an important piece of the housing policy solution that would help thousands of Chicagoans avoid the cascade of problems brought on by homelessness. It has proven to reduce eviction rates in California and has become law in three other states and several major cities including Seattle, Portland and Washington, D.C. By reducing overall eviction rates, fewer people will be left in the cold, fighting over limited shelter beds and desperately trying to keep their bodies from literally freezing.
I checked on my patient this week and was happy to find that the edges of the black eschar on his foot had fallen off and there was viable tissue underneath. All of his toes were still mummified, though, and the surgeon will decide next week whether to proceed with amputation. Regardless, it will be long road to recovery for this man, whose lack of shelter on a cold winter afternoon meant waking up to a terrible new reality where he couldn’t feel his feet.
If only we had thought of him a few months ago before he lost his housing. If only our community invested more in homelessness prevention.
Sabina Wong is a family medicine physician and associate clinic coordinator at the PCC Clinic at The Boulevard, a medical respite center for ill and injured homeless adults. She is a member of the Chicago Homelessness and Health Response Group for Equity and co-founder of Rooted REPS, a social justice ministry on the West Side.