Cold Comfort


For some, spring means lighter clothes or an occasion to clean the closets. For Maria Antonia Roa, 31, the gentler weather brings about a drastic reduction in her gasoline and heating bills— which are one and the same. During the winter it costs Roa and her boyfriend about $13 a night to keep their blue Oldsmobile warm— or at least warm enough to sleep in. Pretty soon, they hope to cut that in half.

For now, the couple remain in their car, taking turns sleeping in the back seat (the bigger and by far the more comfortable), and waiting. Consistently mild weather, the kind that makes it possible to sleep with the windows rolled down, is still months away.

For the housed, the weather can function as a distant backdrop— a fleeting annoyance or passing thrill. They can soak up the pleasures of an unexpected, 68-degree day in March, and then escape back inside when the temperature plunges back to normal.

But for Roa as for many who take refuge in abandoned buildings, subway stations, and forgotten corners of public buildings, the fickle elements are inescapable. The unpredictable weather—
combined with a lack of storage space— makes dressing a delicate gamble, for instance.

“You want to be covered, you want layers,” says John Robinson, who has been living “here and there” for the past year and a half, often spending his nights watching TV in the waiting room of a local hospital. Robinson carries an extra sweater donated from a local convent on this unusually lamblike day. “But you don’t want to overheat. That’s when the sickness comes.”

And when it does come, illness that can be a major inconvenience for people with beds, bathrooms, and handy aspirin can upend the more precarious existences of the homeless. “Even when I’m sick, I don’t act sick,” says Beverly, a 36-year-old mother who often spends her nights in the hallway of an apartment building in Bedford Stuyvesant.

“With a home, you can just relax and block everything out. You can get into a soft seat and just meditate . . . ” she says, her voice trailing off in a reminiscence of lives past. On the street, when she has a cold— or even the flu, which she suffered recently— “I just can’t give in.”

Even without sickness— with only chronic problems such as drug addiction and mental illness that have come to be accepted as normal for the homeless— survival often means trading one physical discomfort for another. Riding the trains, for instance, is warm and relatively safe, but hell on the joints. “You can only take up one seat, and sitting up all night bothers the lower back and shoulder blade,” says Beverly.

Many drop-in centers, which provide warmth and a chair, also offer only a sitting sleep. For years, Kelvin Hutcherson, 34, spent his nights propped up in such chairs. (In many places, shelter seekers are kicked out for resting their feet on the seats.) Though he’s since gotten control of the crack habit that kept him wandering from shelter to sidewalk to public park, Hutcherson’s body still carries the aches of those times. He traces his chronic back pain to sleeping upright and his arthritis to the nights spent walking the streets to stay warm.

Even now, with a place of his own, the terror of the bitter cold remains fresh for Hutcherson, who still suffers from depression and has difficulty sleeping. He once woke up in an abandoned building to find the homeless man next to him frozen to death. “I’ll never forget that,” says Hutcherson. “I touched him and he was frozen. Then I ran out of there because I knew they’d think that I did it.” Hutcherson was saved from the frigid air by three stray dogs who slept on top of him during the night.

The shelter system offers heat, of course, but at the risk of still other indignities. The constant fear of having possessions stolen often leaves overnighters perched in a state of half-alertness, a “one-eyed” sleep, as Stella Tate, 42, describes it. She was beaten severely both in the shelters and on the streets, having spent six years shifting between the two. In the public parks, Tate sometimes spent the night under benches, using discarded newspaper to both warm and hide herself. Now having gone seven months without using crack, she is taking stock of the toll of those years on her body. “I feel old,” says Tate, who suffers from arthritis, heart problems, and seizures. “I have the same ailments my mother has. She’s 62.”

Tate now watches the seasons change from within a toasty Brooklyn apartment. But she doesn’t take that comfort for granted. “This is not my first time rising,” she says. Having stayed clean— and housed— for periods of years in the past, she knows the raw existence can be only a few slips away.

Meanwhile, the less fortunate live with the seasons changing around them. For Beverly, the warmer weather has its downside: more people will crowd the places she has to herself on winter nights. “It’s just gonna make it more dangerous,” she says, shaking her head. “People’ll be out later. So I can’t always grab that hallway I used to grab. That’s less sleep that you’re getting.”

For Roa, too, the promise of warmth rings empty. Even with the windows rolled down, a car is a car. Looking forward to spring, she says simply, “I hope we have a place by then.”