In light of last winter’s polar vortex, the Oak Park Homelessness Coalition has created the Polar Vortex Response Team to transport people experiencing homelessness to safe areas when extreme cold temperatures strike.

“When institutions close – schools, township, library, etc. – then it’s harder for people who are experiencing homelessness to get to somewhere warm for, say, the day,” said John Harris, Oak Park Homelessness Coalition core committee member.

Homeless shelters rotate nightly in Oak Park and River Forest and are closed during the day.

“So, at 7 or 7:30 a.m., the guests check out and go to their jobs or to the library or wherever they might spend their day and then they go to the next shelter that evening,” Harris said. “With the extreme cold, it makes travel on foot or bike obviously very difficult and dangerous.”

Last January, the Midwest experienced historic low temperatures. Chicago experienced its coldest temperature – negative 23 degrees – in 34 years Jan. 23, 2019. Throughout the Chicago area, businesses and schools closed and flights were canceled. Metra workers lit frozen rail tracks on fire to keep trains running. The whole region basically shut down, resembling a dystopic ice age.

Housing Forward and the Oak Park Homelessness Coalition mobilized a group of volunteers to protect the homeless from the unsafe temperatures, sowing the seeds of what would later become the Polar Vortex Response Team.

“I think we had 25 or 30 people each morning and evening transporting Housing Forward clients experiencing homelessness to a daytime shelter. There was a shelter that was opened for the day and there was transportation,” Harris recalled. “Literally cars were lined up in the parking lot and down the street.”

The huge response from people in the community made the effort a success.

“What was wonderful about that is, with a few emails and texts and phone calls, the community mobilized, and we were able to keep everybody out of harm’s way and safely indoors,” Harris said.

“What we learned from that though is, if that were to happen again, it’s better to be prepared. We created this Polar Vortex Response Team.”

The first email asking people to join the team went out around the holidays last month.

“After sending one email, we had 40 people signed up to become members of the team,” Harris said.

A database holds the contact information and availability of every individual who signed up to volunteer.

“You can sign up for emergency notices for the village, including severe weather. Severe weather [alerts] are what triggers our response team,” Harris said. “If it’s going to be below zero and it looks like institutions are going to close, we get a notification from the village and that puts our wheels into motion.”

People can sign up to receive these alerts on the village website.

“It’s the Oak Park bat signal,” Harris joked.

In the event of more severely cold weather, the Polar Vortex Response Team is at the ready. More volunteers are welcome to join the group.

“We’d certainly love to have more people sign up,” Harris said.

“By getting people to sign up, what it does is it helps people think of the plight of those who are experiencing homelessness… It does raise the awareness of what it might be like for others and how we can help in a pinch.”

People can sign up online at

“Hopefully we won’t have an extreme weather emergency this winter,” Harris said,
“but if it does occur, we have 40 people ready on call.”

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