A desk inside the North Area Community Center. Courtesy Katie Prout

I didn’t expect to be escorted off the premises of the city’s only overnight warming center on a 28-degree evening, though perhaps I should have. After all, I’d been warned. Last fall, when I learned I’d gotten this job, I asked people who live on Lower Wacker what kinds of stories they’d like to see in the Reader. Repeatedly, folks suggested I take a look at the city’s six official “warming areas” run by the Department of Family & Support Services (DFSS). “What about them?” I asked.

“They kick you out the second the weather goes above 32 degrees, and I mean the second.”

“There’s only one on the whole north side!”

“They don’t let you sleep. If you fall asleep, you get kicked out.”

“The security guards are always watching you and cops come in and out. You don’t wanna be there.”

“I don’t even use them anymore.”

While centers are open to every Chicagoan in theory, these conversations gave me the vibe that in practice, they could be inaccessible, inhospitable, and generally unhelpful to the people they were meant to serve. I had many questions, and hoped to have a chance to ask them to both staff at the centers and, crucially, the Chicagoans who do use their services and find them beneficial in some way.

On February 2, 2022, snow was falling at a rate of one to two inches an hour in Chicago. The night before, Governor J.B. Pritzker had made a disaster declaration for the entire state. The wind was blowing in at nearly 18 miles an hour, the temperature was in the low 20s, and the first warming area I went to—the second floor of the North Area Community Service Center at 845 West Wilson in Uptown—was closed. I’d arrived half an hour before the official closing time, but the security guard who met me at the building’s locked side door told me that the center shut early due to weather. He let me in anyway, because the rest of the building was still technically open, though staff there too would be leaving soon. They’d received an email from DFSS Commissioner Brandie Knazze, explained one worker, weary and friendly, advising staff to leave early due to wintery conditions. 

In extreme weather conditions, the city—in collaboration with public libraries, city park facilities, and some hospitals—might open up additional warming areas with additional hours. Usually, there are six community service centers: North Area, Trina Davila, Englewood, Garfield, Dr. Martin Luther King, and South Chicago. The centers are open Monday through Friday, 9 AM to 5 PM.

Using data collected between 2015-2019 by the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census, researchers at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and Vanderbilt University mapped rates of doubled-up homelessness (when people who’ve lost their homes move temporarily in with others) in Chicago. According to their data, the Public Use Micro Areas (groups of community areas known as PUMAs) with the highest rates of people experiencing homelessness in the city are Chicago Lawn, Englewood/West Englewood, and Greater Grand Crossing; North and South Lawndale, Humboldt Park, East and West Garfield Park; and South Chicago, Pullman, West Pullman, East Side, and South Deering.

Each PUMA is home to at least one warming center (and Lawndale-Humboldt-Garfield Park has two). Although there is only one warming center in the PUMA for Uptown, Edgewater, and Rogers Park, it appears that need and distribution do roughly match up. 

Inside the North Area Community Center, I walked around the small first floor. There was a tiny pharmacy that also offered free meds delivery. A box of colorful condoms rested on a desk a few feet away, where people could also make an appointment to get vaccinated against COVID-19. “FREE CONDOMS! NOT CANDY!” read the sign above the box. “¡CONDONES GRATIS! ¡NO SON DULCES!” A banner on the wall announced a summer jobs program for youth was now open for applications. Across the way, a poster taped to a pole advised everyone to KEEP CALM AND WASH YOUR HANDS; underneath it, DFSS fliers in both Spanish and English offered information on the city’s Rental Assistance Program. 

Stepping back out into the cold, I was struck by something I knew in theory but needed to see to really understand. The warming areas don’t just exist to warm you up—housed within DFSS community service centers, they’re also access points from which Chicagoans can be connected to other services that have the potential to change their lives. When the warming areas are closed, or difficult to access, so are those opportunities.

Two days later, on a gray, icy day, I visited the Trina Davila Community Service Center at 4300 West North in Humboldt Park. Unlike the center in Uptown, this building was one story, but like that center, a security guard met me at the door. I introduced myself, and explained why I was there. He pointed me to a window in the wall. Behind that window, a woman sat at a desk. Speaking briefly with her, I was able to confirm that this was the warming center, and no one came to use it today. After that, the woman refused to answer any more questions. I’m sorry, she said politely and nervously, but you’ll need to talk to Joseph Dutra, director of public affairs for DFSS.

While she wrote down his name and contact information for me, I was permitted to stay for a moment and look around. A handful of empty plastic chairs sat spaced a few feet apart, and a TV was on. I didn’t see as many social service announcements, but I did see a large poster enumerating all 18 rules visitors must adhere to. The Community Service Center Code of Conduct rules were too many to take in all at once, but Rule 11—Refrain from lying down or sleeping on furniture—jumped out at me, as did the print at the bottom: “PERSONS WHO FAIL TO OBSERVE THESE GUIDELINES MAY BE ASKED TO LEAVE THE BUILDING OR SUBJECT TO ARREST.”

The rules aren’t for show. “Most of the times when you at a place like that, somebody will come and wake you up and be like, ‘Yeah, you can’t sleep in here.’ You see? They be having rules where you can’t be on your phone, can’t play music. It’s like they got 5,000 reasons to kick you out instead of one reason to help you out,” says Antione, 32. 

“Where were the bathrooms?” I wanted to ask. “If someone is exhausted and needs a safe place to warm up and nap, will they really get arrested?” I wish I’d had the chance to ask. Instead, I left.

On a frigid day last November, Mariah, 25, went to use the warming area in the Dr. Martin Luther King DFSS Center at 4314 South Cottage Grove, between Bronzeville and North Kenwood. At 5 PM the center closed and she had to leave the building. DFSS advises Chicagoans who still need shelter after hours to call 311 to be connected to options, including placement at an available shelter. Outside, Mariah made the call as instructed. 

“I called and I couldn’t get to nobody,” she says. “I called them again. They told me to call, they gave me some kind of ID number, and they said that they’d let me know and pick me up, and take me where I needed to go. But nobody called back, and it was really freezing out.” 

Mariah never made it to a shelter that night. Instead, after waiting almost three hours for a call back, Lyte Collective, an organization that supports young people experiencing homelessness, was able to place her in a hotel for the night. But other evenings, when Mariah called 311 for a warm place to go, she ended up sleeping in her car. “They called me in the middle of the night, [once at 1 AM and once at 3 AM], but they called me just to say they were still waiting on the bed.”

When I ask Mariah if she’d recommend the warming areas to others, she hesitates. “Yes?” she says. “But that’s the only one. There’s no 24-hour warming centers. So if you need shelter, especially around this time of year, I say go to the emergency room, where you know it’s gonna be warm. Somewhere where you know it’s gonna be 24 hours.” 

I tell her about the 24-hour warming center in Garfield Park. It’s not open seven days a week, I explain, but it is open.

“See,” Mariah says, “I didn’t know that existed.” A warming shelter is a great idea in theory, she explains, but it can be hard to travel to one, or to know which one is right for your needs.

“[I]n reality, CTA is the largest warming center in the city right now, because, for most people, there really isn’t an alternative,” wrote Sam Carlson, manager of research and outreach for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, in an email. To back this up, Carlson pointed to DFSS’s 2021 Point-in-Time survey on unsheltered people. The data shows that 32 percent of people counted in the winter aren’t in shelters.

I wanted to see what the city’s only overnight center was like on a night near the end of a winter month, when people are more likely to be short on cash and more in need of safe emergency shelter from the weather. And so, one cold evening at the end of February, I drove over to 10 South Kedzie. 

It was about 7 PM when I arrived. The lights were on but the doors were locked. Inside, two security guards sat at a desk. One continued eating dinner; the other got up and walked my way.

“Do you work here?” he asked, standing in the doorway. No, I answered, and identified myself as a writer from the Chicago Reader, working on a story about the city’s warming centers and hoping to speak with folks using this one now. He shrugged, and allowed me inside. 

“She’s a reporter lady,” the security guard called over his shoulder to his coworker, who put down his dinner and started to rise up out of his seat. “I am a reporter lady,” I smiled, and started to introduce myself. He interrupted. “We can’t talk to you right now.”

“That’s OK,” I said. “Is it OK if I go up to the warming center? I’m just doing a story—”

“You can’t go up to the warming center, we can’t have no press in here.” As he told me I needed city permission to be here, the guard came out from behind the desk to bring me a sticky note with Joseph Dutra’s name and number on it. I asked if I could take a picture of the note, for my records. The guard, watching my phone warily, told me I could take a picture, but then I had to leave the premises.

“I can’t ask if there’s people just using the facility?”

“Nope, nope, nope, that’s an invasion of privacy.”  

As the guard escorted me to the door, he repeated again that I had to set up a meeting with Dutra first. (I reached out to Dutra: we spoke briefly on the phone Monday, but he was unable to respond to my emailed questions before we went to press. DFSS Commissioner Brandie Knazze did not return my call.) I thanked him for his time. The door shut and locked behind me. The whole encounter took about two minutes before I was again out in the cold.

This moment left me confused. There are no laws protecting privacy in the United States, and it’s a stretch to call it an invasion of privacy when a journalist asks folks if they consent to talking about their experience in a DFSS center. Also, like Grant Park or Harold Washington Library, these warming areas are meant to be accessible to the public. Being a journalist doesn’t stop me from being a Chicagoan. 

The staff at the first center were friendly, but none of them ran the warming area, as that part of the center had closed early. The staff at the second refused to talk to me. The security guards at the third not only refused to answer any questions, but wouldn’t allow me to even enter the warming area itself, and escorted me to the door. Why? And if I was met at every locked door with a security guard asking me to explain why I was here, what does that say about the reality of the access of this good for Chicagoans who need it?

Rules around the warming areas are only useful insofar as they keep everyone safe while also making this crucial service widely available. If the rules of access are nebulous (in my case), punishing (in Antione’s case), or unknown (in Mariah’s case), an area meant for all becomes accessible to few, potentially leaving the rest of us out in the cold.