CHICAGO – Homeless advocates opened warming centers, children bundled in parkas and scarves, and wind-lashed commuters quickened their pace Tuesday as brutal cold gripped Illinois.
Temperatures in northern Illinois fell below zero Tuesday morning for the first time in almost two years, with wind chills as low as 15 to 20 degrees below zero, the National Weather Service said.
Readings across the state ranged from a low of minus 7 in Mundelein, about 50 miles north of Chicago, to 18 degrees in Carbondale, in southern Illinois.
A low of 1 degree was recorded at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport just before 8 a.m.
The cold was blamed for the death of a 70-year-old man who was found inside his unheated mobile home in Des Plaines, said Cook County Medical Examiner’s office spokeswoman Mary Paleologos.
An autopsy determined Lawrence Sviontek died of hypothermia and cold exposure, with chronic alcoholism listed as a contributing factor.
Paleologos said it was the eighth cold weather-related death of the winter and the first since temperatures plummeted over the weekend.
Ariana Laffey, a 30-year-old homeless woman, sat on a milk crate near Chicago’s Willis Tower, determined to brave the cold that sent most people scurrying indoors until she collected at least $40 from passers by.
Her husband, she said, was working another corner a few blocks away.
“We’re just trying to make enough to get a warm room to sleep in tonight,” said Laffey, tugging a scarf around her face. She said she was wearing three pairs of pants and six shirts along with a warm jacket.
She said she and her husband slept under a bridge Monday night, huddling under six blankets. But she said she’s luckier than other homeless people who have no blankets and “go to the emergency room and make something up so they can stay warm.”
“There are a lot of us out here,” she said.
Matt Smith, a spokesman for the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, said the city planned to count its homeless population Tuesday night, a process repeated every two years.
In 2011, the count found 6,598 homeless people in Chicago, with 4,873 staying in shelters at the time and the other 1,725 living on the street.
The city was using six community centers as warming centers during the day, and other facilities could be opened if necessary. Twenty-one senior centers were open to older residents, and numerous churches and other organizations were providing shelter, he said.
The city had more than 3,700 beds available for those who need a place to stay overnight, Smith said.
The Illinois Tollway planned round-the-clock patrols until at least Thursday to help stranded motorists, and had assisted 180 motorists between Saturday and Tuesday, officials said.
In Bloomington, where the National Weather Service says the temperature bottomed out at 2 degrees just before dawn Tuesday, the weather was harder on the people than the animals at the Miller Park Zoo, zoo superintendent Jay Tetzloff said.
Some animals that stay outside in the winter, such as the sea lion and otters, get extra food since their bodies are working harder to stay warm, he said. Others, such as birds from warmer climates, have permanent, warmed indoor homes. The staff isn’t so lucky.
“Some locks might freeze over, so you’re always thawing out locks,” Tetzloff said. “You might have to break ice on a water bowl.”
National Weather Service meteorologist Matt Friedlein said temperatures will climb to the lower or mid-20s today and Thursday, considerably higher than earlier in the week but still below normal for this time of year.