Winter Comes to Chicago

After a prolonged period of really quite mild weather, winter has come to Chicago in earnest. Temperaturs have dropped into the teens, single digits, even, briefly, below zero. After eleven months without snow, Chicago’s “snow drought” has been broken. There’s about an inch of snow on the ground here.

The snow drought was always actually a precipitation drought. In each month of 2012 Chicago’s precipitation for the month came very close to the driest on record. Precipitation is far below average.

On Tuesday Chicago conducted its Point-in-Time Homeless Count. Squads of volunteers and city employees combed Chicago’s streets and alleys, canvassing the city for homeless people sleeping in the street despite this coldest weather of the year. Chicago is estimated to have under 2,000 unsheltered homeless people, roughly a third of Chicago’s homeless. It’s not that there are no shelter berths available for them. They sleep on the street for their own reasons whether because they’re afraid of the shelters, lack the mental capacity to find shelter, or simply prefer to sleep outside to their other alternatives. In doing so they put themselves at risk of death from hypothermia.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, fewer than 700 deaths per year are hypothermia-related in the United States. Of those roughly half are out-of-doors, with the greater number being in Alaska, Wyoming, and Montana. Deaths of the urban homeless due to hypothermia are actually quite rare in the United States.

Typical scenarios for death due to hypothermia in the United States are

Case 1. In December 2003, a man aged 69 years with dementia was reported missing from his residence in Vermont. Despite extensive searches, his body was not found until March 2004 in the backyard of a nearby home. During that period, outdoor temperatures ranged from -14°F to 57°F (-26°C to 14°C). Descriptions and photographs of the scene suggested that the man had tried to cover himself to keep warm. Cause of death was reported as hypothermia, with dementia as a contributing factor.

Case 2. In February 2004, a male aged 16 years was found dead 40 yards from a road in a rural park in northwestern New Mexico. He had last been seen alive the previous day when he was dropped off at high school. The boy was found wearing damp, light clothing; his jacket and neck chain were recovered a short distance away. Temperatures in this region ranged from 11°F to 42°F (-12°C to 6°C) on the day he was found. An autopsy identified minor abrasions and contusions on his face and extremities. His blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was 0.15 g/dL, nearly twice the state legal limit of 0.08 g/dL for drivers. Toxicologic analysis of blood and urine also revealed 2 ng/mL of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and 50 ng/mL of delta-9-carboxy-THC, both active ingredients in marijuana that suggest recent or chronic marijuana use. The cause of death was certified as hypothermia from cold exposure, with alcohol and marijuana intoxication as contributing factors.

Case 3. In February 2004, a man aged 18 years was found dead near a creek in southeastern Alaska. He was dressed lightly for winter conditions. The man had been missing for approximately 1 day, during which temperatures had ranged from 39°F to 45°F (4°C to 7°C). Toxicologic testing revealed a BAC of 0.18 g/dL, twice the state legal limit of 0.08 g/dL for drivers, and a urine ethanol concentration of 0.28 g/dL. The cause of death was listed as combined effects of alcohol intoxication and hypothermia.

The primary risk factors for death due to hypothermia, considered a preventable cause of death, are advanced age, mental impairment, and substance abuse.

Deaths of homeless persons due to hypothermia have declined in recent years due to a variety of local, state, and federal programs. Federal programs include the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program and the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing program. In total several billion dollars are spent per year combating homelessness.

I wrote this post for several reasons. The first, obviously enough, is that it’s cold here in Chicago. The second reason was in response to a particularly stupid comment to this post at OTB. The reason that homeless people die of the cold in the United States is not, in general, that we “don’t give a damn”. We’re doing what we reasonably can. Essentially, it’s for cost-benefit reasons. Greatly reducing the number of such deaths below their present very low numbers would require measures we abandoned years ago, e.g. forcible involuntary institutionalization of the mentally ill. We have made trade-offs and, sadly, any trade-off will come at the cost of some lives.

11 comments… add one
  • Andy

    I saw that comment too. I actually wrote a response but ended up deleting it. Glad I’m not the only one who thought it was particularly stupid, even for OTB.

  • jan

    Greatly reducing the number of such deaths below their present very low numbers would require measures we abandoned years ago, e.g. forcible involuntary institutionalization of the mentally ill. We have made trade-offs and, sadly, any trade-off will come at the cost of some lives.

    Involuntary institutionalization or being subject to the erratic nature of the streets — what a choice.

    One of my best friend’s brother has been a vagabond for most of his adult life. He lives outside in a tent, or under overpasses with other kindred people. Recently, when their father died, he came into a little inheritance. It was placed in a bank account for him, and his sister and brothers all thought he would then get a small apartment, normalizing his life. However, to date, he hasn’t touched the money, and continues the life he is accustomed to living.

    It’s difficult for one to figure out what another wants, or, for that matter, what makes them tick, even if they are a family member.

  • Drew

    This is a tough issue for me. My brother is bipolar, has not worked in years, and is approaching exhaustion of his financial resources. No doubt we will turn him over to the wonderful “social safety net” the left has created….NOT.

    Fortunately, my resources will guarantee that no one in my family will end up in dire straits, unless of their will. jan makes an interesting observation. Is it money? Is it the person?

    I’ve never known whether to take our own Michael Reynolds at his literal word about his, um, “interesting” past. But let’s stipulate its true. Was it because of lack of intellect? Obviously not. Lack of ability? Obviously not. Choice? Probably not, but if so what the hell was going on?

    When my brother is properly medicated he does fine, and I can identify his core personality traits (from earliest childhood memory) as a fundamental problem. When not medicated, I see disease. The nexus of the two are hard to reconcile.

    In any event, I sure wish we were not so politically correct as to deny necessary institutionalization, and so boneheaded as to confuse necessary public assitance for the truley needy with subsidizing the Jerry Springer crowd.

  • I am recovering, slowly, Drew.

    I am a journalist by degree and world work, and I have ventured into the world of employed people not doing their jobs.

    That scares me. And it’s not strictly Democrats.

    Whatever happened to Rocky McSwain?

  • Michael works.

  • The hardest thing I’ve ever done is to make corporations pay attention to what to them is a pissant matter. Not to me, it wasn’t .

  • How many of us really want to work that way?

  • I wear cowgirl boots.

  • TastyBits


    Your brother may need his medications adjusted, but he needs to want to take them. A psychiatrist knowledgeable about bi-polar disorder is essential, but he needs to spend more than 10 minutes with the doctor.

    Many bi-polar people do not like the medication because they tamp the mania. A bi-polar mania is unbelievable. Creativity and production skyrocket. Solutions to problems come fast and furious. Many times, there is not enough time to get them all down. After a long term mania, it can be hard to adjust.

    Somebody needs to actively keep him on track until he gets adjusted. A nagging wife helps. He should be able to function as any “normal” person does. With the proper “cocktail”, he should have the normal range of emotions and feelings, and the extremes should be dampened.

  • Drew


    The lightbulb first went off after a long dissertation from my brother about “special courts” and “special lawyers” who were going to deal vigorously with his now ex-wifes “medical issues.” When I asked him what “special lawyers” were these he pulled out a phone book and showed me a list of ambulance chasing personal injury lawyers.

    Alrighty then.

    Its a mess. We try to keep him on the straight and narrow……

  • TastyBits


    Hang in there. Mental illness runs in my family, and I know it is tough. The mentally ill person does not realize that everybody is not like them. What your brother says makes perfect sense to him. A good therapist is invaluable. They can bring your brother to understand what you have been trying to tell him.

    Your brother needs someone to advocate on his behalf. The medical personnel want to help, but they usually do not have enough time. His advocate should be polite but firm and insist on an adequate explanation. Doctors make mistakes.

    With proper treatment, he should be able to function as anybody else. You should keep an eye on any nieces and nephews, and their children.

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