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‘I Thought I Was Going to Die.’ How Chicago’s 80,000 Homeless People Are Surviving in Deadly Zero-Degree Weather

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Peter Illich, 56, was feeding the ducks by Lake Michigan on Monday night when he noticed the temperature suddenly drop. Instead of turning in for shelter, Illich curled up on a park bench, his snowsuit his only protection from the cold.

The next day, he says, he noticed that he had frostbite in his hands. This has happened to him before.

“You can’t open and close your hands for ten days,” Illich says.

Chicago is currently facing some of its coldest temperatures this winter, with temperatures dropping to 0° F with a wind chill of -22° on Tuesday. And while most of the city’s residents can take refuge in the warmth of their own home, that’s not an option for Chicago’s approximately 80,000 homeless people, Illich among them. Temperatures that low can quickly become life-threatening, creating an urgent crisis for those without adequate shelter.

The City of Chicago on Monday urged people who are unable to find shelter to call for assistance. “3-1-1 offers a range of services to assist some of Chicago’s most vulnerable residents, including shelter for homeless residents, warming centers and well-being checks,” reads a statement from the City. Homeless shelters are also not turning anyone away who requests shelter, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a tweet. A spokesperson from the Chicago Department of Family and Support Service did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for further comment.

Tom Gordon, a 60-year-old homeless person in Chicago, says that he has a “sinus condition” that gets worse in the cold. Audibly sniffing while he talks, he says he can deal with it. “I’m a survivor,” he says. “I’m going to make it.”

Still, Gordon believes he’s one of the lucky ones by comparison. On Monday night, he slept over with a friend, Rex, who agreed to give him shelter. Gordon doesn’t know how long he will be able to stay with Rex, but he’s happy to be out of the cold for now.

When he’s not with a friend, Gordon typically sleeps in a park. To stay warm, he stuffs hand warmers inside his bedding and covers himself with industrial garbage bags. But when temperatures hit -4° last Friday, that wasn’t enough. “I thought I was going to die,” he says.

Making it through the winter outside used to be easier because he would sleep in a tent with a donated propane heater, Gordon says. While the heaters can be hazardous, he says that you only need to run them for 15 minutes inside of a tent to get warm. But city officials have reportedly cracked down on tents to make way for construction. Other reports say that police frequently clear out tents on the grounds that it’s illegal to block pedestrian thoroughfares.

In recent months, Gordon says he had four tents and two propane heaters taken away. Gordon believes that the city is unfairly concentrating on depriving homeless people of the supplies they need to survive instead of offering them permanent housing or finding other long-term solutions.

“I told the city, ‘get me what I need and you won’t see me no more,'” Gordon says. “But they didn’t, so I’m still out here.”

Doug Schenkelberg, the executive director of Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, says Chicago has added about 500 beds to its homeless shelters during the current freeze, and has opened warming centers in buses, libraries, and recreational centers across the city. However, he says that there are many reasons homeless people may avoid shelters. Some are fearful for their safety or their belongings, others have difficulty traveling to them, and some can’t meet a shelter’s rules, such as a sobriety requirement. Most Chicago shelters also require people to leave in the morning, Schenkelberg adds.

“They can feel more safe and secure in an encampment on the street than a shelter where they have to move out every morning,” Schenkelberg says.

Schenkelberg adds that, while warming centers may save lives this week, they won’t address the long-term problem of homelessness.

“In a couple days, this weather will pass. They will close up the extra cots and the sense of urgency will be gone,” he says. “People are homeless 365 days a year and the City of Chicago isn’t doing enough to address homelessness.”

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