Sleeping out in bone-chilling cold: Maine's homeless struggle to cope

As Mainers get ready for another night of snow and freezing temperatures, there are some who are sleeping without a roof over their heads – people like 35-year old Matt Coffey. Coffey camps out in a wooded area somewhere in greater Portland – he doesn’t want to disclose the exact location for fear of being harrassed.

It’s the second winter he’s camping in the woods, he says. He warms himself with two sleeping bags, a comforter and a pet cat called Slinky. Despite sub-zero temperatures Monday night, he says he was able to keep warm.

“I slept fine – I slept like a baby,” he says.

It’s a sleeping arrangement that most people can’t imagine in the middle of a snowstorm. But Coffey says he’s learned to make the best of it.

“So sometimes on the really, really cold nights – like last year when it was, like, 20 below zero – like, on the coldest nights I would wake up and there would be a thin layer of snow on top of me, but that’s just on top,” Coffey says. “When you’re in the blankets and stuff, you’re perfectly warm.”

Coffey is standing on the sidewalk outside the Preble Street Resource Center in downtown Portland. He says he comes here every day, usually by bus, to get a meal. “I just come to eat because I don’t use food stamps. I don’t abuse the system,” he says.

“I think people are looking for sanctuary. I think people are looking for a place where they can feel safe,” says Bill Burns, co-ordinator at the Resource Center. He estimates that about 50 people are sleeping outside, without a roof, on any given night in Portland this time of year. Many of them prefer this option to sleeping in a crowded shelter.

“There are people who are anxious around lots of other different kinds of people,” Burns says. “They might have heard rumors about what shelter life is like. You know, if there’s fighting or loud noises or the kinds of things that would keep anybody away from a large, potentially chaotic environment.”

While Matt Coffey is getting fed and warmed up at the Resource Center, Burns takes me to look at Coffey’s encampment. A short drive and a walk through deep snow leads us to a wooden door frame, marking the entrance to the place Coffey calls home. Behind it, a blue tarp supported by fallen tree branches, covers a 15-by-12-foot area

Pulling the tarp back and stepping inside, an old sofa is visible on one side. And right in the middle of the space is Coffey’s “bedroom,” – a small tent within a bigger one.

Coffey’s situation is well understood by people like Peggy Lynch. She’s an outreach worker at Preble Street, who tries to convince homeless people like Coffey to make use of some of the shelter’s resources. She says the work of preparing them for the onset of winter began several months ago.

“We start keeping our eye out in the fall for certain donations – sleeping bags, warm boots, hats, gloves, mittens,” she says. “We talk with people as the weather is starting to change, reminding people at the end of summer in September, ‘You know winter’s coming, it’s going to get cold, do you have what you need.?”

Now with the mercury at dangerously low levels for those sleeping outside, Lynch goes out on patrol whenever she can to check up on the most vulnerable in the homeless population. She estimates that she visits more than 20 people who are sleeping outside.

“We come and check periodically. We don’t have like a schedule. We tend to bring warm boots, flameless candles, hand-warmers, food, blankets, and anything else they may request,” she says.

She says they also encourage those sleeping outside to stop by the day shelter for a hours, where they can warm up. But one of the reasons some of them don’t choose to stay overnight at the shelter is because they can’t bring their pets. Coffey says that’s true in his case, but he also doesn’t like accepting charity.

“And I don’t believe in somebody giving me something for nothing,” he says. “I’d rather build – you know, I built that myself. If I can’t get work, unfortunately I have to fly a sign to make a few bucks. But I don’t take any money from the government – I’d rather have a job.”

Coffey says he’s an excellent landscaper. It was what he did for work before the recession left him homeless three years ago.