CLEVELAND — With their shopping cart squeaking and creaking over broken sidewalks and ice-covered parking lots, the two men keep moving so they can survive. Chris and Tim, who have both lived on the streets for several years, are among the thousands of homeless men, women and children living in Cuyahoga County. With brutally and dangerously cold temperatures on the horizon, their daily ritual of survival grows more and more difficult.
A wind chill warning is in effect through Thursday, putting people like Chris and Tim in a potential life-or-death situation. Both men asked not to have their last names used. With wind chills dipping to -15 to -30 degrees on Wednesday, those without homes are especially vulnerable, considering frostbite can occur in a matter of minutes.
“Oh, it’s cold out,” Chris said as he rubbed his glove-less hands together. “It becomes a struggle. It’s a struggle within kind of thing.”
Chris has only known struggle. He said he’s been homeless off and on for more than a decade, his face and hands worn from scorching days and bone-chilling nights. Determined and resilient, he didn’t complain, even when a dive into a dumpster for scrap cans and metal left him with a cut on his face.
“That’s what happens. You’ve got to make a couple bucks,” Chris said. “You’ve got to be self-sufficient. You can’t just rely on somebody else. I don’t rob. I don’t steal. I don’t do anything like that. I have to come out here to make a couple bucks if I have to.”
Some days, their haul is $6. On other days, it’s $60, Tim said. With Tim guiding the shopping cart up and down the city’s streets near downtown, Chris hops into large dumpsters. After a few minutes, his head will emerge again as if he’s coming up for air after a dive into the ocean.
At the end of the day, the two men will make the long trek to a scrap yard on East 55th Street.
“There’s nothing easy about being on the street,” Tim said with a hearty laugh. “Nothing at all. You’ve got to keep going. What are you going to do? You can’t just lay down and give up.”
One foot after the other, Chris crunches through the snow and crosses the railroad tracks north of Lakeside Avenue. Standing in the middle of chopped firewood and a collection of tarps, he’s home.
“This is the entrance to the camp. Anybody is really welcome here. It’s just that all we every ask is just take care of yourself or bring your drugs down here or do anything like that,” Chris said. “If you’re going to be there, respect it.”
The two men both said they have plans to take refuge at one of the area shelters later this week as polar air shuffles into Northeast Ohio. Until then, they’re trying to collect as much scrap metal as they can in order to have enough money to get them through the week.
“You’ve got to dress for the cold. It makes it a little harder and you move a little slower,” Tim said. “It is a little more unbearable but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
During a press conference Tuesday morning, city and county leaders stressed the importance of the area’s network of homeless outreach agencies. Although the homeless population is encouraged to go through central intake, people who come to either the men’s or women’s shelter after hours will not be turned away.
Darnell Brown, the chief operating officer for the City of Cleveland, said the city would not be keeping open a group of recreation centers 24-hours-a-day as warming centers as the city had last winter. Keeping those rec centers open all night proved to be logically and operationally difficult.
“It became quite a challenge for us,” Brown said.