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We made it through the polar vortex, when the Chicago area was colder than Antarctica and competitive in absolute temperatures – but not wind chill – with Barrow, Alaska. Here in Evanston, we hunkered down, trying not to breathe in the cold as we traversed the distance to car or garage or bus stop. We wore layers of socks and shirts and sweaters even inside, and we remembered hot summer days as we sipped rapidly cooling coffee or tea.  We did those things – at least, those of us who were fortunate.

Some had to go to work: medical and public safety personnel, City crews and those who clear others’ sidewalks and driveways. Some homes were without power or just too cold, and the City opened some community centers during the day. And, during the coldest months of winter, some churches and synagogues offered emergency shelter on a rotating basis.

City employees – firefighters, police officers, street-clearing and water department crews and other personnel – did a great job of keeping us safe and mobile, and the City Manager provided updates. About 62 homes were without power on Jan. 30, and utilities crews worked diligently to restore service. Water Department crews fixed water-main breaks. The Police and Health & Human Services departments assisted affected families with transportation and other resources, as needed. On Jan. 30, a few residents spent some warm time at the Levy Center and Fleetwood-Jourdain Center. That night, 47 people spent the night in an emergency shelter.

Brutal as the weather was, in the short-term, last week’s weather was for most of us a cold spell – dangerous and challenging but short-lived. The longer view, though, is sobering. It is a call to care – to care for the homeless and to care for the planet.

Emergency shelters and warming centers are critical to the community. People who have lost heat, light, or water need a place to be until the crisis is over.

For some, though, the crisis – emotional, social, medical or other – persists well beyond a few days. In the best cases, an emergency shelter can also serve as a transition to more stable housing. Stable housing, in turn, helps people re-orient their lives, find work and reconnect with society.

We are glad to see that the City of Evanston and several private local organizations are working to get our homeless and at-risk population into places where they can make a home. 

Getting everyone who needs it into safe permanent housing will be difficult. It is not a straightforward path; it requires much good will, charity, perseverance, and, of course, money. The cost of permanently housing all our residents may seem steep at first. Think of the cost of not doing it.

The weather itself is cause for concern, a dramatic demonstration of climate change: a polar vortex followed by rain, making a 70˚ swing in temperature in less than a week. Melting glaciers, warming ocean waters, ravaging wildfires and chart-topping storms are some of the results of our careless and wanton actions. Recently environmental danger was added to the factors considered in resetting the Doomsday Clock.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists wrote on Jan. 24, when the Doomsday Clock was reset: “Humanity now faces two simultaneous existential threats, either of which would be cause for extreme concern and immediate attention. These major threats—nuclear weapons and climate change—were exacerbated this past year by the increased use of information warfare to undermine democracy around the world, amplifying risk from these and other threats and putting the future of civilization in extraordinary danger. … There is nothing normal about the complex and frightening reality just described.” By their account, it is two minutes till midnight.