It’s cold as Ann Coulter’s heart in Chicago. That means many homeless people will be utilizing public spaces to keep warm. In our community, there are two options open to all homeless residents, without condition, and they are both hospitals.

For background, the most vulnerable homeless population has a double diagnosis: substance abuse and mental illness. These are the folks who are unable to stay in a shelter, housing, and generally the group most looked down on and seen as inhuman.

My plea is this:

1) Relax about smells: it is freezing cold and many people don’t have access to showers.

2) Relax about “weird behavior” — Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former governor Bruce Rauner closed the majority of the community mental health hospitals. There are people without access to medical doctors, medication, or treatment. They are ill. Most shelters have policies that do not allow people with severe mental illness to stay. But they are human and need to be inside from the cold. Currently, the options for the mentally homeless population are to go to jail or a hospital. Both are unacceptable options, especially in dangerously cold weather.

3) Relax about substance abuse — stopping drug use isn’t an easy process. It damn sure doesn’t happen just because it is cold. Most shelters have policies that do not allow people who are on drugs, or intoxicated, to stay. Which means, most are left on the street or sent to jail.

4) Relax about stealing winter coats — It is cold. A proper winter coat costs upwards of $300. I can barely afford a quality winter coat. Assume if a person steals your North Face or goose whatever, they need it more than you. If you want to do something, hold a local coat drive for quality winter coats and protective gear for the homeless.

5) Relax about yourself, and your need to be comfortable and hidden from the effects of poverty. America usually does a good job of hiding the most vulnerable citizens from those who are comfortable. When people who are not used to seeing the severely poor, severely ill, homeless, those with no health care, suffering from substance abuse, fellow humans, they immediately want them “put away from sight.” But again, it is freezing out there.

Your need to live in comfort, and even your right to ride the train in your fancy warm coat, listening to your music in peace without the distractions of unpleasant poor, sick people, is not a priority. The priority is people finding warmth wherever they can. Currently, there are less than a dozen, non-jail, non-hospital, shelter options for people with serious illness.

We have a crisis of morality in our city and nation as it pertains to how we treat the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens and our brothers and sisters in God. We need major policy overhauls. We also need for good people who are privileged (i.e. you and me) to show some compassion and be willing to be inconvenienced so that all people, can stay out of the deadly, bitter cold weather. 

ShaRhonda Knott Dawson is a west suburban resident who is involved in multiple service organizations and projects in, and around, Oak Park. Her writing can be found on her blog, sharhondatribune.com.

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