How Do They Endure the Midwestern Winters?

by Matt Hayes

Webster’s dictionary defines the word survive as “to remain alive or in existence after; to continue living or existing.” For the homeless, surviving means to continue living or existing after they no longer have a place to call home.

Every year, thousands of people go homeless on the streets of Cleveland. Never knowing where their next meal is going to come from or where they might be sleeping that night, they live their lives on a day-to-day basis. Exposed to drugs, violence, harsh weather, and an unsympathetic society, their lives are driven by survival. Joe, Rosland, Mike, and Lou are four people who have experienced surviving on the streets.

Joe, who is 34 and has been homeless for over four years, lives under bridges and in Project Heat sites. A crack cocaine addiction pushed him onto the streets and now no longer addicted to crack, he is struggling to control an alcohol problem. “Crack is a five to ten minute high and then you want more,” he said.

According to Joe, the harsh winter weather is one of the most difficult challenges the homeless face. You also must be aware of “fiends” because you “never know who is going to walk up and slit your throat.” For Joe, violence is a part of life on the streets but you can’t be afraid to fight he said, or “people will take everything you have.”

Rosland became homeless just over a year ago when someone broke into her apartment and did $600 worth of damage which she couldn’t repay. The biggest initial shock for her was being on the street and all alone. “I had to depend on myself. Everything I did was all on me.” Getting something to eat has never been a problem for her as much as getting to something to eat. “If the food shelter is on the other end of town and you have no money you have to walk.” Because she has a crippled left leg, finding transportation is crucial for Rosland.

She has also been exposed to her share of violence while living on the streets. “I’ve been raped and robbed several times.” During the winter when she was out all night she would wear three to four layers of clothing and keep moving to stay warm. “Sometimes I would go to a hospital or a laundry mat if I were outside and the police were harassing me.”

For the past several months, Mike and Lou have made their residence behind an abandoned building near the Flats. They built a small home, which they refer to as “The Homestead,” out of scraps from construction sites. Just in front of the Homestead and to the right is a small garden they planted which is already sprouting signs of success. Shelves lining the front of their home are filled with cans of soup, peanut butter, and other staple items. “We’ve got a homeless castle,” exclaimed Lou.

Lou, 37, became homeless after he lost his job as a foreman in a polymer plant and became a crack addict. “I met a guy who was taking a break from a gang and the next thing I knew I was a gang member.” Lou spent a year and a half in the gang and subsequently became addicted to crack. “I worked through a temp agency for 8-9 hours a day for about $27. I’d cash the check, spend it on crack and get high, and then would realize I didn’t have money to eat. Then I would do the same thing the next day.”

Money became hard to come by and Lou began robbing drug dealers. “I smoked half of what I stole and sold the other half.” Lou has had his share of violent encounters as a result of his drug activity on the streets. “I’ve seen many people cut up bad. I’ve seen people shot at. I’ve been shot at and chased by police helicopters, everything.”

Mike is 38 and became homeless after he was released from prison. Now on the streets, he spent most of last winter, one of the coldest and snowiest in Cleveland history, at the Homestead. Lou was fortunate enough to live with a friend in Akron. So how did Mike make it through the winter? “When it was -15 degrees below zero, I stayed out here and Mark came down.” Mark Budzar is the VOA’s Outreach Counselor who looks in on Mike and Lou from time to time. “Mark asked me if I wanted any blankets. I said no. I’ve got five blankets and three quilts which satisfied me and kept me warm.”

Mike explained that because the Homestead is built up solidly behind an old concrete building that, “When the wind blows this house doesn’t even shift. I mean it doesn’t even creak.” On cold days Mike stresses that he can make it. “I build up the fire for cooking and staying warm. I can stay warm if I want to. I just don’t want you to think that I’m some kind of superhuman.”

For Mike and Lou, survival has meant working together. They first met at St. Augustine’s and Lou introduced Mike to the site behind the building where he was staying. Together, using their experience in construction and maintenance work, they built the Homestead. “When we laid down the 2 x 6’s for flooring, we did it all by eye and feel, we didn’t use levels or nothing,” said Lou. “We work good together,” added Mike.

The two plan out each day what they’re going to try to do to make money. That usually involves collecting tin and aluminum cans, copper, or donating plasma. If one or the other happens to come across temporary employment, they share the money while the other stays and looks after the place. “We do the best we can,” says Lou, “and we’re not going into the shelters.”

Lou describes the shelters as 40 - 50 guys in the same room talking about the women they were with and what they made them do for free crack. “It’s sick. A lot of the guys have no ambition and feel they’re owed. But the two of us are productive people.”

Mike added, “A majority of homeless people sit in shelters. I’m out here working hard and walking at least 40 miles a day.” To prove his fitness, Mike took off his sweatshirt to reveal a trim, muscular build. “I’m in shape,” exclaimed Mike. “I have to stay fit.”

Mike and Lou rank firewood as one of the most important commodities for surviving. “We need it to cook and stay warm,” says Mike. Extra clothing, especially socks, is also important for the two. When it comes to eating, Mike and Lou often get help from the West Side market. “We usually collect scraps of vegetables or people who work there ask us what we want and we take it,” says Lou.

Sometimes they go to St. Augustine’s or St. Pat’s to get bread. “Bread means a lot.” One of their favorite meals they cook is a vegetable stew. They recently challenged a visitor to have a bite and he “wolfed it down without even looking up!” exclaimed Lou. They have even thought of someday marketing their concoction. “Homestead Stew we’re going to call it,” says Lou.

Mike and Lou acknowledge the aid of a few close individuals who help them make it on the streets. “We ask Mark for things,” states Mike. Mark Budzar, the VOA Outreach Counselor who looks in on them occasionally, drops off firewood or anything else they may need. “We love this guy Mark for helping us out,” added Lou.

As for prospects for the future and rumors that the area they live in is being surveyed by developers who want to build condos, Mike and Lou are not concerned. “It won’t be until the year 2000 before that happens,” claimed Lou. But they don’t plan on being around if and when that happens. It has always been a dream for Lou to ride a bike across country to California. He has money coming to him and Mike has agreed to go along.

Until that day comes it will be life as usual for the two as they are currently adding another room onto the Homestead. “We may not have three or four thousand dollars in our pockets but in reality are living better and are happier than a lot of people,” said Lou.

Lou also said that they have a bond, thinking alike and having fun while drinking a few beers around their campfire. “Most people think that the homeless are winos living under a bridge and aren’t worth a shit. But those people don’t know what it takes to survive and a lot are only one paycheck away from being homeless,” claimed Lou. According to Mike, his experience at the Homestead has been like a camping experience. “It’s about surviving. Most people couldn’t do this. I got to do what I got to do to survive.”

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published June 1996-July 1996 Issue 16