Matt Coffey says a key to surviving outdoors in the bitter cold is a small tent and lots of blankets.
“If you’re bundled up with your blankets, your body is enough to keep it warm,” Coffey said. He sleeps outdoors with his cat, Slinky, who isn’t allowed in Portland’s shelter.
To stave off the cold, Coffey said he builds a small fire in a protective structure, like a miniature teepee, to hold the heat. He is careful to keep the flame away from the sides of the tent and never leaves it burning when he sleeps. He knows that some homeless people have died when their shelters have caught fire.
With temperatures plunging below zero early Tuesday morning, many of Portland’s homeless faced life-threatening cold. About 220 were expected to spend the night in the city’s Oxford Street Shelter and in the overflow spaces at Preble Street and the city’s general assistance and refugee center offices.
Some would sleep in cars, although the number is difficult to tally, said those who work with the homeless. Somewhere between 12 and 24 people would shelter outdoors, under bridges and at campsites, pitting themselves against the elements.
With a cold air mass headed for Maine, most areas on the coast were expected to have temperatures below zero overnight Monday, while inland areas dropped to minus 10, said Jim Brown of the National Weather Service in Gray.
The lowest temperature in Portland last winter was minus 4 degrees, on Jan. 24. In Gray, it was minus 7 on the same date, the weather service said.
Coffey said he has been living outdoors for three years and has become skilled at cold-weather survival. Others find shelter where they can.
“When it gets too cold, the people who are tenting migrate in,” said Coffey, an unemployed landscaper. “The people who stay outside, most of them are tough enough to handle it.”
He says he’s one of them. “I prefer to leave those bunks open for those people who really can’t survive on their own,” he said of the city’s shelter beds.
Preble Street, a private nonprofit social service agency, sends teams of outreach workers to campsites in the city each morning to offer extra blankets, flashlights and hand warmers, and to offer people help to find permanent housing.
“When it’s cold, it’s a life-or-death issue,” said Bill Burns, the coordinator of adult day shelter services for Preble Street. “It creates this real kind of foreboding. Nobody is immune from that terrible image of freezing to death.”
The number of homeless adults seeking emergency shelter with the city each night this month has ranged from 201 to 247, about 75 percent to 80 percent of them men. The average number of people seeking shelter has hovered around 230 since the spring, up significantly from 2011, when it ranged from 139 to 189 per night.
The Oxford Street Shelter can take about 125 people. Another 75 can be sheltered at Preble Street, and 16 more can stay in city offices that can be converted to shelter space if needed.
SEVERAL SURVIVAL OPTIONS, SOME RISKY
The risks of being homeless in cold weather aren’t confined to freezing. Dangerous temperatures can drive people to take chances they otherwise wouldn’t, said Burns.
“Teens will often engage in some very unsafe behavior to stay warm,” he said. Others might return to abusive situations that they tried to escape. “The cold weather just ups the ante,” he said.
Robin Bartlett, who is homeless, said staying warm, day or night, becomes a priority for people who don’t have permanent housing or choose to live outdoors.
“It’s all about the layers. I’m wearing like three pairs of long johns right now,” Bartlett said. “At this time of year, hygiene takes a back seat.”
He also wears heavy “combat boots” for warmth.
“For people kicked out of the shelter, they’re staying in some of the local squats,” he said, referring to vacant buildings.
Bartlett’s companion, his dog Bella, wears her own quilted vest. She is bothered less by the cold than by the irritation of walking on the salt and chemicals the city puts down to clear roads and sidewalks, he said.
Some homeless people dodge the cold by staying with friends. It’s called couch-surfing, but it’s less pleasant than it sounds, Bartlett said.
“It’s somebody else’s couch. You have to get going pretty early in the morning,” he said. “The people I really worry about are some of our drinking brothers and sisters who might try to stay outside a bit too late.”
‘JUST A ROOM FULL OF SUFFERING’
The Milestone Foundation, which runs a detoxification program and an emergency shelter for people with substance abuse problems, has a group called the HOME Team, which patrols the city looking for people who have been drinking and can’t get to shelter or medical treatment on their own.
Workers for the shelter on Oxford Street start patrolling the neighborhood around 9:30 p.m., looking for people who may have intended to go to the shelter but couldn’t make it because they fell asleep, sat down to rest or were waiting until they sobered up, said Josh O’Brien, director of the shelter.
Cold weather does drive some people who would otherwise remain outdoors to seek emergency shelter, he said.
“Just in the last week, we’ve seen folks we don’t normally see,” O’Brien said. “I had one guy say, ‘It just got too cold. I couldn’t feel my toes anymore.’ ”
Despite that, the number of people who seek emergency shelter at city facilities actually drops off during serious cold or snowstorms, O’Brien said. “Folks aren’t moving around so much,” he said.
People who are staying with friends usually stay put when the weather turns foul, and the migration of people from outside Portland tapers off. It usually picks up again when the weather improves, he said.
Dangerous weather poses a problem throughout the day, not just at night.
During last weekend’s snowstorm, the city opened the shelter’s waiting room during the day as a warming station, while Preble Street opened its downstairs soup kitchen to accommodate the overflow from its day shelter, Burns said.
The day shelter – and its bathrooms – can handle only so many people before it gets overly congested.
“It’s just a room full of suffering,” he said. “Fortunately, it beats being outside.”
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: