December 17, 2013

Maine homeless suffering, surviving

When bitter cold sets in, Portland’s shelters overflow, teams fan out to help substance abusers, and some on the street have the skills to avoid freezing.

By David Hench
Staff Writer

Matt Coffey says a key to surviving outdoors in the bitter cold is a small tent and lots of blankets.

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

Assistant Director Robert Parritt looks over one of the rooms at the Oxford Street Shelter that often fill up as people come in from the cold in Portland. The shelter can hold about 125 people on any given night.

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“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.


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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Robin Bartlett, who is homeless, carries his dog, Bella, as he heads to the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland. Staying warm is “all about the layers. I’m wearing like three pairs of long johns right now,” he said.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

Matt Coffey, who is homeless, stays bundled up in Monday’s cold as he smokes outside the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland. Coffey says he usually sleeps outside at night even when it’s bitter cold, staying warm enough using his survival skills.

Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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