It’s below zero in Chicago, and 21,000 people in the city are homeless

It’s crazy cold in Chicago today: -9 degrees not even counting wind chill. With wind chill, I hear it’s -40. School’s canceled, businesses are closed, trains are delayed, and this morning I opted to put hot cocoa in my coffee rather than brave the walk across the street to grab some Half & Half. It was actually pretty good.

It’s not a convenient day, and it’s easy to complain. I have no food in my apartment, because I just got home Saturday and the grocery store down the street is closed until February. I was just outside for a minute in order to walk to the bar next door ┬áto get a sandwich and the hair in my nose froze in seconds.

But I have an apartment. With heat. I have a warm down comforter to shroud myself in. I have a bar next door to me where I can get a chicken sandwich if I have no food and no way of getting groceries until my Peapod order comes in. I have warm boots and a warm coat to put on when I leave. I have a handmade hat and handmade mittens, because I have the sort of lifestyle that has allowed me to take up crocheting as a hobby. I have money to pay for that sandwich. I am pretty fucking lucky.

Right now, according to the representative I spoke to at Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, there are 21,000 homeless people in Chicago on any given night. Although this does take into account people staying in shelters and people crashing on couches, this is still a fuck-ton of people.

Last year, the City of Chicago reported that 18,000 students were homeless at at least one point during the school year.

Is there an atheist version of “There but for the grace of God go I?” Because there are a thousand ways my life could have gone differently. One slip, one mistake, one lay-off, one disease, one accident, and it could be me. It could be you.

The city is taking some precautions due to the weather. The CTA will allow people to “continually ride” on the trains and buses, whereas normally homeless people are kicked off for doing this. Shelters will turn no one away, although some homeless will brave the cold in order to avoid the bed bugs. Warming stations will move throughout the city in buses, providing the homeless with a place to get warm and have something to eat. It’s the best we can do–today, at least. In the short term at least.

It’s heartbreaking and it’s scary and even if you do nothing else today, at least have a little humility. Be a just little grateful that you have your problems and not theirs. Be just a little afraid that if you complain too much about the problems you’re lucky to have that you’ll get a lightning bolt to the neck.

Now, you can brush it off and tell yourself they’re all drug addicts. That somehow they deserve what they’re getting because they failed at America. Even though we don’t hold quite the same amount of anger towards drug addicts with money, like Rush Limbaugh, Lindsay Lohan and half of my high school, who get sent to rehab instead of jail. Who have the money and resources to turn their lives around. Oh no, we expect far more nobility from our poor than our rich. Be Tiny Tim or GTFO!

You can tell yourself that your problems being chilly while getting to work this morning are just as relevant to you as their problems are to them and that it’s totally not fair to compare the two.

You can tell yourself that John Stossel is right! All the homeless people in this country probably are millionaire FOX News reporters in hobo drag just trying to steal money from honest hardworking Americans like yourselves.

You can tell yourself it will never be you, because you work hard! Because you pay your bills on time! Because you’d never slip up and make the kind of mistakes those people made. And certainly if you did you’d have the pride to never ask for a dollar or a sandwich or a place to sleep or come in from the cold from anyone else. Of course you would.

You can do all of that. But know that you’re the real problem with this country, not them. If you’re thinking more about yourself on a cold day like this than you are thinking about them, you are the problem.

Homelessness and poverty are serious problems in this city. In this country. We have enough wealth in this country so that no person should have to be in this situation today or any other day. We need to fight for them, because many of them have no way of fighting for themselves. Because we should never, ever, believe that there is any mistake anyone can make, any way they can fail that makes it morally acceptable for them to freeze to death or starve to death. If it were a serial killer, we would consider that cruel and unusual punishment.

If you’d like to make a donation to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, you can do so here. There are many other places you can donate to if you like as well, that do good work. In addition to that, though, we need to fight for government action to take care of our poor. Because nothing defines us as a country as much as how we take care of the least well off in our society.

Image: AP