Every summer for the last 20 years, Chicago native Diana Graham, 80, has installed her two air conditioning units in the living and dining room windows of her two-story home in Austin on the West Side, just as the city begins warming up. 

“I’ve been just basically managing every summer with what I have,” she said, referring to the air conditioners. “So far, they haven’t gave out on me, and thank God because everything is so expensive.”

In addition to being a 50-plus-year homeowner, Graham organizes meetings with seniors on her block and within the surrounding area. She is president of her block club, Lotus Neighbors for Action. 

As July saw temperatures ascend into the upper 90s, Graham said it was concerning for seniors, especially those who may not have access to air conditioning. 

“I almost had a heat stroke yesterday. I got overheated, and I thought I wasn’t going to make it home in time before I passed out,” Graham told The TRiiBE on July 28. The day before, she’d been out celebrating the grand opening of the Aspire Center at Central Avenue and Madison Street, as the temperature hovered at just above 90 degrees.

Graham said many of her elderly neighbors use window air conditioners in their homes because the cost to install central air is simply something they can’t afford. Many of them are also not able to afford the upkeep of their properties after losing their spouses, she said. In short, there is not enough support or systems of care to protect vulnerable seniors from extreme or extended heat.

As climate change continues to drive weather extremes, researchers, lawmakers, and community members in Chicago are ramping up efforts to identify, prepare and protect at-risk communities. 

It was just two years ago that three women over the age of 65 died of heat exposure while inside their senior living apartments in Rogers Park.

And it’s been nearly 30 years since Chicago’s deadly heat wave, which resulted in the deaths of 740 people. Most of those who died were Black or brown, and elderly. Many lacked access to air conditioning, and lived in under-resourced communities on the South and West sides.

Diana Graham sitting on a couch in her living room surrounded by photos on the wall of her family & loved ones
“I've been just basically managing every summer with what I have,” Diana Graham said, referring to the air conditioners. “So far, they haven’t gave out on me, and thank God because everything is so expensive.” July 28, 2023. Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE®

“When extreme heat hits Chicago, we start looking at vulnerable populations, like what we learned from 1995, the greatest causes for hospitalizations and deaths were chronic diseases, such as kidney, heart or lung disease,” said Raed Mansour, director of innovation for the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH).

Following the 1995 heat wave, the city strengthened and updated its heat emergency response system, which included establishing six citywide cooling centers, and a “3-1-1” program for well-being checks, as well as disaster preparedness and response training. 

But community organizers say the small number of cooling centers, their locations and limited hours of operations are not enough to keep people safe during times of dangerous heat.

Lonette Sims is chair of the People’s Response Network (PRN), a grassroots volunteer organization of public health workers, organizers and activists that has advocated for a stronger, fully-funded public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“So right now, the city of Chicago only has six cooling [and] warming centers, and only one of those centers is open 24 hours, and that’s the one on South Kedzie [Avenue],” Sims said about the East Garfield Park location. That makes it challenging for people to access if they don’t have cars or are relying on public transportation, she added. Instead, she would like to see each community area in the city have a designated cooling center. 

Sims advocates for buildings like churches to be used as respite centers during extreme weather events. For example, Stone Temple Missionary Baptist Church in North Lawndale could be used for that purpose, she explained, if it were to be equipped with air conditioning equipment.

People who don’t have access to air conditioning can also access public libraries and park districts as alternatives. People that are unhoused or without transportation can call 3-1-1 to receive a ride to a cooling center.

“These historic institutions, that have given people guidance for decades, don’t have air conditioning, heating or proper backup generators,” Sims said. “So, as we think about climate change, we’ve got to think about protecting the buildings that are already here so we’re not putting a strain on hospitals.” 

On July 27, hours before, a heat advisory went into effect at noon on Friday. The TRiiBE reached out to Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration to ask if the city would extend hours at the five cooling centers that aren’t open 24 hours, whether the city planned to open more centers in the future, and if the administration is considering additional solutions — outside of cooling centers— to give vulnerable communities access to air conditioning. 

Johnson’s team only answered the question about extending hours. Press secretary Ronnie Reese said hours can only be extended during a heat warning, which is different from the heat advisory category that the city was under on July 28.

“[The] City of Chicago cooling centers operate extended hours during a heat warning. Current conditions per the National Weather Service are in the heat advisory category,” wrote press secretary Ronnie Reese in an email to The TRiiBE. 

A heat advisory is issued by the National Weather Service (NWS) when the heat index is expected to exceed 105 degrees. However, a heat warning is issued when the heat index is expected to reach 100 to 105 degrees on three consecutive days, for two consecutive days with a forecast peak heat index of 105 to 110 degrees, or for one day with an expected heat index of 110 degrees or higher.

Though temperatures on July 27 fell below the threshold for a heat warning, Graham wondered if it were possible to lower it to accommodate vulnerable communities like seniors and unhoused people who may have needed access to cooling centers outside of its normal hours.

“People are sitting on the streets, curbs,  in doorways, on benches, in the scorching heat,” Graham said. I don’t see why they can’t [extend hours at cooling centers].” She added that there are numerous vacant properties citywide, such as former public schools, that could be repurposed as cooling centers.


When temperatures are higher, our bodies are working harder to keep body temperatures stabilized, which can put pressure on the heart, lungs and kidneys. Extreme heat exposure can be fatal for people with preexisting conditions.

A heat study, conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), found that historically redlined areas were significantly hotter than those not redlined

In April, NOAA selected Chicago and 17 other communities in the U.S. for its Urban Heat Island Mapping Campaign. The effort will help identify hotspots called heat islands to help policymakers develop a course of action to reduce health impacts of extreme heat, which disproportionately affects marginalized groups. 

Lonette Sims standing next to a sign
Lonette Sims is the chair of the People’s Response Network (PRN), a grassroots volunteer organization of public health workers, organizers and activists. Sims is pictured at Mi Villita Neighbors Hub in Little Village. The PRN is one of several community organizations working with the city for its heat mapping initiative. July 28, 2023. Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE®

CDPH director of innovation Raed Mansour applied for the NOAA grant in 2022, stemming from his work with mapping tree canopy under the city’s Our Roots Campaign. Mansour will lead Heat Watch 2023 for the city along with Kyra Woods, project manager for the city’s Office of Climate and Environmental Equity. The PRN is one of several community organizations working with the city for its heat mapping initiative. 

Woods said the campaign also acknowledges the history and lasting detrimental effects of redlining. The hope is that information gathered will help the city to identify and protect vulnerable communities.

“We’re kind of in the middle of that right now to ensure that we’re acknowledging and responding to historic trauma as well as learning from that and applying it to our current situation,” Woods said.

Mansour and Woods said about 500 people signed up to be resident scientists for the campaign’s activation day on July 28. The CDPH began asking for volunteers in June. Chicagoans can stay updated through the campaign’s website.

Volunteers worked in groups and measured heat in the city’s 77 communities in the morning between 6:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m., in the afternoon from 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., and in the evening between 7:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m on July 28.  

Volunteers traveled on 29 designated routes with heat sensors. Each heat sensor records temperature, humidity, time and location. The information gathered will help policymakers improve Chicago’s heat safety strategies. Mansour said the city will share those results with the public this fall. 

Lonette Sims is outside near a table setting up informative flyers & water
Lonette Sims reviews materials to distribute on Heat Map 2023 activation day to resident scientists. July 28, 2023. Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE®

“I do want to acknowledge that there have been community pressures for not just mapping particularly, but for a holistic review of our preparedness,” Woods said.  “So the act of applying for Heat Watch Chicago really helped to pull a few things together, and we know that this is just one part of a greater mosaic or a greater puzzle to ensure community stability and resiliency in the time of an extreme weather emergency.”

Individuals and community groups address community concerns

As residents await permanent solutions to staying cool during the hot summer months, some city officials and community organizations are taking matters into their own hands by providing water, fans and air conditioners to those in need.

South Side based, My Block My Hood My City (MBMHMC) has provided free box fans and water to senior residents in need during the summer months for the last six years. 

“When there’s a heatwave. I go get water and fans, and I go right to Walmart or Target to buy as many as I can,” MBMHMC founder Jahmal Cole said. 

He typically connects to people in need by making posts on social media. From there, seniors or caregivers can fill out a form, and Cole or another volunteer will personally deliver a fan or water to their homes. 

Cole estimates that he’s given out at least 1,000 box fans, thanks to donations. Here is the link to make a donation for water or fans. 

“We need partners in city government and federal government that will support nonprofits that are already doing the work on the block level,” Cole said.

On the North Side, a collective of organized tenants called the North Spaulding Renters’ Association, launched a campaign this summer called the People’s Cooling Army, where they install air conditioning units for free and train renters on installation. They are also collecting used air conditioning units to lend to renters in need. Donations and training can be arranged by texting their hotline at 443-347-4626. 

To date, the collective has installed 23 air conditioning units for residents in Humboldt Park and Logan Square, and they are looking to expand to residents citywide. For assistance, residents can email the North Spaulding Renters Association at northspauldingrenters@gmail.com or by hotline at 443-347-4626. 

“This problem with extreme heat is going to become much more of a deadly problem and, as far as we see it, [cooling] should not be something that people can charge money for. It should be provided in the house, we shouldn’t have to provide it ourselves,” Gregory said. [Editor’s Note: The TRiiBE is using a pseudonym for Gregory, who asked for anonymity because of their work helping tenants install air conditioning units, and they are worried about retaliation]

Lonette Sims greeting & handing a volunteer informative materials
Resident scientist volunteers return heat sensors and other materials to Lonette Sims of the People's Response Network at Mi Villita Neighbors Hub in Little Village. Volunteers worked in groups and measured heat using heat sensors in the city’s 77 communities in the morning, afternoon and evening on July 28, 2023. Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE®

In 2022, Ald. Maria Hadden (49th Ward) introduced, and the Chicago City Council adopted, an ordinance requiring senior housing complexes and other apartment complexes to provide air conditioning equipment in indoor common gathering areas. The ordinance allows temporary portable air conditioning equipment to be used until  April 30, 2024. However, permanent equipment must be installed by May 1, 2024.

Gregory said the 2022 cooling ordinance is just an incremental solution toward addressing the problem.

“There needs to be a requirement that every unit and apartment unit be kept at livable temperature,” Gregory said. “Or, the tenant has control over the temperature of their own apartments. This has to be mandated by law, all year, not just in the winter, not just when it’s cold out, also when it’s hot out.”

Graham agrees that she’d also like city officials to have more preventive measures in place to protect her friends, neighbors, and other seniors from dangerous heat waves. 

But she’s also ready to get her community involved to address the gap.

“The elderly people of today have paved the way for our children and grandchildren,” she said. “I want to recruit 17 to 30-year-olds and teach them how they can help elderly people,” Graham said.

is a multimedia reporter for The TRiiBE.