Alaska's hard-core homeless cope with deep subzero temperatures

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Ron Feldhouse draws the line at 45 degrees below zero. Then it's time to sleep indoors.

Otherwise, he sets up camp in the woods outside Fairbanks, where winter temperatures can hover around 20 below zero or colder for weeks at a stretch, cold enough to be fatal for the unprepared.

Dealing with the elements is the norm for Feldhouse and other hard-core homeless Alaskans.

"It's a learned art," said Feldhouse, 47. "After a while, you just start getting used to it."

Many of Alaska's indigent -- a population that's difficult to measure -- cope by drifting from couch to couch or sleeping in motels, cars, boats and homeless shelters in the larger cities.

But a small number say they prefer dealing with the cold to following the rules at shelters, which limit stays, ban alcohol and drugs, and impose curfews.

Practiced campers say it's not that hard to stay warm -- it just takes a little ingenuity. They dig caves in snow mounds, pack snow high around outer tent walls for insulation, and line inner edges with clothing. Some burrow in trash bins or curl up in doorways.

On cold nights outside Juneau, Ed Heeckt, 36, burns a can of gel fuel inside his tent for 10 minutes to get it "nice and warm." He puts on layers of shirts, pants, a couple pairs of socks and a hat before diving into his mummy-style sleeping bag.

Many campers are Alaska Natives, said Norma Carter, social services director of Bean's Cafe, a day shelter and soup kitchen in Anchorage. She knows a 92-year-old man who grudgingly moved into a subsidized assisted-living home three months ago.

"I think it's a cultural thing in some cases, where people are accustomed to taking a boat up the river and sleeping on the bank, under the stars," she said. "For others, it's just not having money, not wanting to be found. There are different reasons why people camp."

"I just don't like being tied down," Feldhouse said. "Living like this lightens the load. I don't have to answer to anybody."

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