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Sunday, June 23, 2024
The Observer

Upper vortex side

Every few years, when the low pressure system that surrounds the Arctic weakens, pockets of polar air can make their way farther south than they normally would. This is what happened last week, when a ‘polar vortex’ brought frigid temperatures to the midwestern United States. Not just frigid, actually—some states recorded temperatures colder than those at the South Pole. The windchill in Minneapolis reached -50 degrees. Mount Carroll, Ill., recorded a new record of -38 degrees without windchill.

Notre Dame canceled classes. Around 2,700 flights across the country were canceled as well. My train into Chicago ended up being a bus, as the South Shore Line told us tracks were too frozen for service. The cold also resulted in thousands of car accidents, power outages and 21 deaths. The homeless were particularly vulnerable—at these temperatures, frost bite can occur on exposed skin in just five minutes.

Fortunately, shelters in the region did everything in their power to prepare for the weather. Previous reports by The Observer indicated South Bend had prepared adequate shelter for its homeless population. Notre Dame assured us that should anyone need space to stay warm, University facilities would be made available. These measures likely saved countless lives. Both the city and the University deserve praise for their actions, for doing the right thing and for opening their doors as we would want them opened to ourselves. I can’t imagine anyone doing anything else.

Unless we go to New York.

The polar vortex that plagued the Midwest made its way east on the evening of Jan. 30. On Jan. 31, the high temperature in Manhattan was just 10 degrees. The city’s 63,000 homeless faced a dire problem. Those that couldn’t find space in shelters made their way underground, hoping to find refuge from biting wind in subway stations. Some, who could scrape together the $2.75 needed for a subway swipe, sat up on train routes that stayed underground all night.

New York mayor Bill De Blasio and his administration attempted a number of strategies to confront rising homelessness in the city. One such of these tactics is to purchase vacant buildings and convert them into temporary shelters. This is the case with the former Hotel Alexander, on the notoriously wealthy Upper West Side. Residents are less than pleased.

Twelve buildings have hired a private security service to “check up” on the new homeless residents. They pay $140,000 a year for a single guard to patrol the area nightly. The guard “routinely confronts loiterers to ask them to ‘go somewhere else.’” Other Upper West Siders have even attempted to use legal recourse to block the opening of shelters.

Some of their complaints are more than legitimate — on Jan. 31, police apprehended homeless Daniel Omolukun after he followed a family up to their apartment, duct taped them to chairs at knifepoint and robbed them. Most are more innocuous, such as issues with loud music or talking on cell phones.

I don’t spend a lot of time on the Upper West Side. I can’t say exactly how bad the problem is. Maybe I would complain too. But it’s a lot easier to complain about loud music when you can shut the door to it. It’s much easier to deal with the cold when the heat’s on in your walk-up. It’s much easier to tell loiterers to go somewhere else, when you have somewhere else to go.

Many of the homeless are mentally ill. Some are dangerous. But many more just need some help. If the city decided that the Upper West Side was the best place to help, then it probably is. This is a problem that’s hard for a lot of us to understand. But when the temperatures warm up this week, we should all try to remember it’s still cold for some people.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.