Cold snap puts pinch on homeless

The big chill plowed from the Midwest to the East yesterday, setting records in several cities and driving thousands of homeless people in from the cold. Below-zero readings yesterday ranged from Minnesota and the Dakotas across Nebraska, Iowa, and parts of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio.

Shelters for the homeless were filled in Chicago, Baltimore, Denver, Detroit, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, and other cities.

Groups of activists seized vacant public housing in Chicago and Oakland, Calif., Tuesday to dramatize the plight of the homeless. Oakland, Calif., police arrested 17 demonstrators who broke into three boarded-up Victorian homes the city plans to restore.

In Chicago, where 2,500 beds for the homeless in 38 shelters were full, protesters were evicted from vacant units by housing authority guards. Organizers said vacant public housing should be opened to the estimated 25,000 homeless people in the city.

``We can't let these apartments sit vacant while people are dying on the street from the cold,'' said Otis Thomas, president of the Chicago-Gary Area Union of the Homeless.

In Washington, the city declared an emergency and opened the ground floor of city hall to the homeless Tuesday night.

``There's no better place I can think of as a symbol of our commitment to the homeless,'' said Mayor Marion Barry.

Officials in Boston put a second van into service to take homeless people to shelter and expected to fill the city's nearly 1,000 emergency beds.

Record low temperatures for the date were set in a dozen cities, including New York City, where it was 12 degrees F. A record low was tied in Chicago, when temperatures at O'Hare International Airport dropped to 14 below zero, a mark last reached in 1884. At least 12 deaths have been blamed on the weather since Saturday.

``The Soo should be renamed Sault Ste. Siberia,'' said Bonnie Crabb, a nurse in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., which registered a low temperature of 5 degrees and received a record 15.3 inches of lake-effect snow over a 24-hour period Tuesday.

A new storm, meanwhile, promised more snow from the Rockies to the Plains. The burgeoning southwestern front dropped up to six inches of snow in Oklahoma. Snow also fell in Arkansas, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, with snow and freezing rain extending across sections of Kansas and Texas.

The cold put extra demands on many electric companies. Utilities reported record and near-record winter demand for electricity in Delaware and Maryland, where a second consecutive low of minus 10 degrees was predicted for Wednesday night in mountainous western Maryland.

Iowa Power, which serves 239,000 customers in central and southwest Iowa, said it appeared to have met or exceeded an electrical usage record set in 1983.

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