Notes From a Cold Peninsula
by Robin Rage
Got up at 7:15, kicked out the shelter at 7:30. It’s Sunday. The library and Amistad are closed. I borrow a dollar and go to Dunkin’ Donuts. My toes were on fire. Sat at Dunkin’ until 11:30, get some cash. I ain’t ate. If it wasn’t for my one lick [something done, usually illegally, to make money], I’d be starving. Hung around shelter till one, when I could go inside in a very crowded room. Took off from there back to Dunkin’ Donuts for dinner alone. I’ve spent around six hours at Dunkin’ Donuts. This is every day here. Just trying to find somewhere warm. Wait for 6 pm when I can go back to the shelter. It’s a mat on a dirty floor. At least it’s heated.
— Wynterjade Eclypse, in a note to the author, January 2016
Everything’s good if you’re on the right side of the window, the warm side. Snowstorms look magical, cop-stops look comical, the night is just the night. Life’s different on the wrong side, the cold side, where a blizzard is just one more thing that can kill you in the dark.
I had little experience camping when I first hit the streets; I was an inside person, like you. I soon discovered that even in summer the ground at Deering Oaks gets damn cold at 2 in the morning.
Years ago I left the woods to stay with Rose Elizabeth for a spell. One day a rainstorm started pounding the street outside her warm West End flat and she wanted to go out and dance in it! I was aghast. I’d lived outside for a while by then, and on the street you ran from the rain like Frosty the Snowman.
The first time it snows you’re happy it’s not rain, but that’s when the happiness ends. During the day in the winter, shelter options in Portland are limited. Penniless streeniks like me don’t have a favorite coffeehouse or barber shop or neighborhood bar where we can while away the hours. There’s always the Preble Street Resource Center, at least from 8 to 5, but really, who wants to hang out there? It’s like a crowded, noisy airport terminal — people standing around with their luggage and nothing to do but wait for a plane that never arrives.
And there’s the library, except on Sundays and holidays. If you’re a citizen you look forward to those days. It means time off, or time-and-a-half. If you’re homeless and unemployed, Sundays and holidays mean no mail, no services, and everything’s closed.
There are a few other nooks and crevices on the peninsula where the homeless can keep warm, but you have to watch out for the powers-that-be and be careful not to congregate too long or you’ll get white-papered (served with no-trespass orders) by the police (usually Officer Dan Knight, the bicycle cop who patrols the business district). They don’t like seeing us in groups unless it’s at the Preb or Amistad, the service provider on State Street.
I’ve kept a collection of all my old white papers. I was banned from Casco Bay Lines’ terminal, the old Public Market, numerous doorways and every parking garage downtown (garages were usually good for a half-hour break from the wind). Then the City decided to ban smoking in all the public parks and squares. Dan kicked me out of Monument for a year, but I never saw any suits get ticketed for smoking there, only the homeless. Granted, even before the smoking ban there were signs posted in the parks and squares declaring “no loitering.” No loitering? Isn’t that what you do at a park?
I know a couple homeless people who used to use their bus passes to ride the Metro all day long when the weather got bad, but providers stopped handing those out about a year ago.
Like Native Americans, the homeless in Portland have been allowed to freely roam within an ever-shrinking area over time. Two decades ago there were spots all over town where the un-housed could tent unmolested. But by 2013, when I camped by the Fore River (see “Sherwood Forest,” November 2014), I was never under the illusion that I was anything but a trespasser in the eyes of the law, so I tried to stay off the radar. I remember being urged back then by the peeps who were camping out behind the Lowe’s on Brighton Ave., near the Portland/Westbrook line, to move out there. “Nobody bothers us,” they said. “The stores don’t care and the cops don’t care. I never even move my tent.”
Well, that was then. Last August the denizens of Tent City (pop. 24+) got white-papered off the property. Last month I got word of a similar raid in Bangor, where the cops trucked the homeless’ tents and blankets and other belongings to the dump. Also last month, Portland Downtown, the association of landed gentry in the Old Port and Arts District, announced an effort to find new ways to sweep homeless “panhandlers” off the streets and out of the view of rich visitors.
There are lots of reasons why people don’t, or can’t, stay at the homeless shelters. Some have been kicked out, bounced for fighting or drugs. Others have bad crowd anxiety. More than a few just can’t handle the bedbug situation. (Don’t sleep next to the lockers and be sure to bag up your backpack.)
I only stayed at the adult shelter on Oxford Street maybe three times. I was really blessed to always find a pad to crash at during the winter nights. For a while I even slept on the couch of a guy who’d blatantly stolen from me before — because in the dead of winter, at 11 p.m., Billy Graham would sleep on RuPaul’s sofa if it were the only place to go. No matter where I was, or what the weather was like at the time, I always left at the crack of dawn. I felt it was important for a lodger to be as invisible as possible, thereby making another night more sell-able.
I learned that born-again Christians and old “friends” typically won’t invite you to sleep at their place when you become homeless, but drug addicts and Muslims would (which was cool if you’re a man; cultural attitudes made such arrangements problematic for females). I’d been sleeping on the floor at Old Man Ali’s when the Whore gave me back my dog, Bella, at which time I couldn’t stay at Ali’s anymore. I didn’t think Bella and I could stay at the shelter either.
This was early in the winter of 2012-13. I was street partners with Nixon and Kosmo, and we found an abandoned house to squat in on Congress. The building was empty but still electrified, and there were extension cords and lights that the landlords or contractors apparently used whenever they came by to work on the place. The buildings next to the squat were occupied, so we tried to keep our use of light to a minimum to avoid the neighbors’ notice. We’d breach the building each night by removing the boards covering a window with a crowbar my pal Jesus had given me. I’d lower Bella down first and let her sniff the place out. We’d stay on the second or third floor, smoke spice, eat whatever we’d acquired during the day, then leave early the next morning, keeping some of our gear there.
The owner discovered evidence of our presence several times, and each time, after re-securing the building, left us a polite note offering to give us back whatever stuff of ours they’d confiscated. We never responded, but we kept returning. Then one night, all spiced up, I turned on too many lights. And the next day, after we boarded the place back up and left, Kosmo realized he’d left his benzo supply inside and had to do a breach at 10 in the morning. We got paranoid and decided to change locales, ending up at one of Kosmo’s old squats, an abandoned building in the West End, over by Cumby’s, that’s since been renovated. I remember when we first breached that building and crept up into the attic there were still piles of blankets and used needles from Kosmo’s stay the previous year.
Those squats were oases to us. Although unheated, dirty and decrepit, they sheltered us from the rain and snow and the constant coastal winds. Bella’s a burrower who slept at the bottom of the sleeping bag. I’d whisper to her every night just before bedtime: “I told you I’ll always get you someplace warm.”
Some homeless people in Portland choose to sleep outside all winter long. The City conducts an annual count, and last month the unofficial tally was 34 folks found camping in the cold, down from 53 last year (though as censuses go, this one’s certainly not thorough).
My friend Matt Coffey, who’s tried to run for City Council a couple times, has been overwintering outdoors for a few years now, and even has a pet cat. As with any extreme sport, if you have the right equipment and the right attitude there’s a decent chance you’ll succeed. That said, a few people will surely die out there this year. Subfreezing temperatures are only one factor. When you add alcohol, opiates and mental illness to the mix, the forecast often turns deadly.
Why don’t the homeless in Portland head for warmer climes during the off-season? For many, it’s a case of “better the devil you know.” As you spend time in the system, you get to know the players, the white coats, the hustle. Different town, different game to learn. Lots of peeps stay put because they’re still more than a little traumatized by the transition from home to the street. A lot of us are on lists that promise things if we can just stay put. And a lot of us are addicted, or become addicted, to the drugs and to the situation, and that rarely ends nicely.
My winter wardrobe included at least two pairs of long underwear worn beneath one or two pairs of pants, a t-shirt and one or two sweatshirts under two Bahas, then the long black coat, a scarf and a hat. I lived and slept in those clothes for months, and warmth always took priority over cleanliness.
On a typical winter morning I’d be on the streets at 6:30, walking downtown from the West End, smoking a spice joint and talking to God. “Thanks for the wind, Jesus!” I’d yell to the sky. “Yeah, Bella, Heaven must be like fuckin’ Minnesota, ’cause Jesus loves the cold!” I’d pick up a Wall Street Journal from some shopkeeper’s doorway and score a Press Herald from the easily popped red box in Monument Square, then sit on one of the icy benches and read the paper, with Bella on my backpack, waiting for the 7 a.m. A.A. meeting at the Unitarian, then breakfast at the soup kitchen at 8.
How did I do it? How did my little pug/papillon do all those miles on icy sidewalks with me? I don’t know, true believers. It must be like acclimating at Everest basecamp. The weather got colder and our bodies got slower and colder too. What matters is we did it. Day after day after day.
I’ll never forget the spring that followed my first winter on the streets, getting excited to see the numbers atop the Time & Temperature Building reaching into the 30s, then the 40s! One night in late spring, in back of Key Bank, we finally peeled off our layers. Kosmo, Sundance and I just dumped our winter clothes in a pile and walked away.
These days Bella and I have a pretty sweet flat in Freeport, U.S.A., but I’m still phobic about the cold. I wake up several times a night, and if Bella’s not under the covers I feel the need to pull her beneath the blankets with me. “It’s good to be warm,” I tell her.
It’s snowing today, and it looks so lovely from this side of the window. But every time it rains or snows, and even when it’s just plain cold, I think about our people out on the streets. I think about this a lot, maybe too much. Sometimes it invades my dreams. And I don’t know what to do.