In one of Chicago’s homeless encampments, a haphazard collection of tents and flimsy dwellings made of tarps and blankets are scattered among barren trees. Nearby, stuffed garbage bags and beat-up cardboard boxes are strewn about in piles on the snow-covered ground.
This tent city adjacent to the bustling Dan Ryan Expressway is where dozens hunkered down to ride out a deadly cold snap that has sent temperatures across the Midwest plummeting to historic lows this week. With temperatures in Chicago continuing to drop, reaching minus-24 Wednesday morning, the city and welfare organizations have been working to keep the homeless population safe, Jacqueline Rachev, a Salvation Army spokeswoman, told The Washington Post in a phone interview late Wednesday.
But on Wednesday, the second-coldest day in Chicago’s history, one Good Samaritan went beyond donating clothes or blankets — the unnamed person offered to put up about 70 homeless people in a hotel on the city’s South Side, the Chicago Tribune first reported.
“We think it’s wonderful that there’s somebody out there that has decided to be so kind to provide a warm place and a safe place for these folks to go,” Rachev said. “We’re thrilled they’re safe and warm at least for a few days.”
Much to the trepidation of officials who have repeatedly implored the public to seek proper shelter and avoid being outdoors, a group of homeless people remained camped in the tent city, relying on makeshift shelters and donated propane tanks for warmth. On Wednesday afternoon, their living situation grew even more dire.
One of the propane tanks — which officials have warned people not to donate, citing serious safety concerns — exploded shortly after noon when a space heater was left on too close to it, ABC 7 reported.
“I was just coming out of my tent, and I heard a boom,” Donald Gorobegko, a resident of the tent city, told ABC 7. “I felt the ground shake, then I looked up, I see smoke.”
Walter Schroeder, the deputy district chief for the Chicago Fire Department, told the Tribune that by the time firefighters arrived at the encampment, the blaze was already out and no one had been injured. But crews did find dozens of other propane tanks, which “escalated” the incident “to a Level I Hazmat,” Schroeder said.
There were about 150 to 200 propane tanks in the tent city, Maj. David Byrd of the Illinois State Police told ABC 7, describing the environment as “extremely unsafe.” After the explosion, the area was closed off, and authorities hurried to find places for the displaced people to go, the news station reported.
The Salvation Army, Rachev said, received a call from the city in the early afternoon informing them that group of about 70 homeless people needed to be moved to a warming shelter, and the organization immediately began making preparations for transport.
Then, about an hour later, the city called back. There was “no need” to pick anyone up, Rachev said, as “a Good Samaritan contacted the city and offered to pay for hotel rooms instead.”
Rachev did not know the person’s identity or the name of the hotel, but said she believed it was located on Chicago’s South Side. She also said she did not know exactly how many people went to the hotel. The Tribune reported that only one man did not go, choosing instead to check into a warming center. City officials could not be reached for comment late Wednesday night.
“It’s a deadly situation for anyone,” Rachev said about the extreme weather. “We’re thrilled that someone was in a position to be able to do this.”
While it remains unclear who was responsible for this act of kindness, others in the Chicago area appeared to have the same idea. On Wednesday, a Reddit user wanting to help homeless people shared a post offering to “cover a night at a local hotel of my choosing.”
“I know it’s not much but at least it’ll let you sleep in a warm bed and take a warm shower,” the person wrote.
Another person responded asking if the user wanted to “team up,” suggesting that together they could help more people.
“Bless you for this wonderful offer,” one person commented. “You could be saving someone’s life. You are a wonderful person for doing this!”
On social media, the anonymous donor who paid for the hotel rooms was heralded as “a true hero” and an “angel.”