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McCaleb: When you can't 'stay inside,' despite weather

Published: Saturday, April 26, 2014 10:46 p.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, April 26, 2014 11:29 p.m. CDT

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It’s been feeling a little more like spring lately, with temperatures – at least some days – flirting with the 60s.

As much as I’m sure we’re all happy to be staring at even warmer days ahead of us, I ask that you join me for a moment in reflecting back on some of the darkest days of winter.

Early the morning of Monday, Jan. 6, is one of the days that stands out the most. Shaw Media, Northwest Herald’s parent company, had just purchased The Herald-News, a daily newspaper and website based in Joliet that serves Will County.

As part of my job, I was helping to integrate The Herald-News into our company. I would be spending Monday through Thursday for the next few weeks working long hours in Joliet, including overnight, so I had to pack for it.

On that early Monday morning, my face numbed from the subzero temperatures as I loaded my car’s trunk with clothes, food, some computer equipment, and more. I remember wondering whether my car would be able to make it the 70-mile or so drive in such frigid weather.

When I started the car to warm it, the thermometer on the rearview mirror registered –4. That was in the garage.

On the drive to Joliet, the car thermometer dropped to as low as –19. Weather forecasters on the radio told me the wind chill could drop to as low as –50.

“Stay inside,” they said.

The Northwest Herald’s lead headline that day was “Arctic Chill.” Another read, “Polar vortex hits Midwest, Northeast.”

And that was just one day. The National Weather Service since has recorded 26 total days when the thermometer plunged to 0 or below in Chicago this winter, a record.

It doesn’t take much to remember how brutal that was, does it?

Now for the reason why I put you through this painful flashback: Imagine you’re homeless going through that same winter.

During my few weeks in Joliet, perhaps the biggest – though saddest – news story was of a fairly well-known homeless woman, Willie Mae White, who died of cold exposure overnight. She was known because she essentially lived in a bus stop in downtown Joliet, where she regularly visited stores and restaurants. Employees and emergency service workers often would help take care of her. They were heartbroken by her death.

After our long winter, McHenry County is lucky we did not record any such deaths here. But it very well could have happened.

Because there is no permanent homeless shelter here, McHenry County PADS works with area churches to provide nighttime shelter for the area’s homeless during the colder months of the year. Come May 1, those shelters will close until November.

Since 2009, PADS, a division of Pioneer Center for Human Services, has seen a 51 percent increase in the number of individuals needing homeless services.

That’s scary.

But because our elected state officials have all but bankrupted Illinois, there’s not much taxpayer money being dedicated to support homeless programs. So Pioneer/PADS relies on the generous donations of local residents and businesses to keep its programs operating.

And Pioneer/PADS’ biggest fundraiser of the year, SleepOut for Shelter, is less than two weeks away.

Before I let you know how you can help, I need to tell you that I am a volunteer member of Pioneer Center’s Board of Directors, and I am the board’s liaison to the SleepOut for Shelter Committee. So I’m directly involved in this fundraiser.

It costs almost $700,000 to fund the homeless programs that Pioneer/PADS provides each year. At least half of that has to come through community donations and fundraisers. SleepOut is the organization’s biggest fundraiser.

This year’s event will be held May 10, for the second straight year on the property of Living Waters Lutheran Church, just off Miller Road in south Crystal Lake. Participants pay a small entry fee or seek pledges, and then spend the night outside, sleeping under the stars in tents, boxes or cars.

Last year, more than 600 people participated countywide, and nearly $74,000 was raised. Pioneer/PADS hopes for at least 700 participants and more than $80,000 this year.

You don’t have to spend the night at the event site to participate, but it’s a lot of fun. I helped serve food last year, and will do so again this year. There’s also a bonfire, live music, storytelling, games and more.

Registration remains open at www.pioneercenter.org. Just scroll down and find the SleepOut for Shelter link under “Events.” If you can’t or don’t want to sleep out, consider sponsoring one of the teams with a financial donation, however large or small.

There is no “inside,” at least not a permanent one, for those in a state of homelessness.

The community’s support is greatly appreciated.

• Dan McCaleb of Crystal Lake is group editor of Shaw Media’s suburban publications, which includes the Northwest Herald. He can be reached at 815-526-4603, or by email at dmccaleb@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Dan_McCaleb.

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