The numbers wouldn't be handed out for at least another 14 hours, and already Osvaldo Alvarado's thin jacket was soaked by the night's steady rain.
But Alvarado just pulled his donated parka tighter and waited.
He'd spent most of last winter outside, under bridges, inside empty port-a-potties, any place where he could escape the wind and snow and whisper a prayer to God not to let him freeze to death.
The thought of having to spend another winter that way was unbearable, and so he'd made sure he claimed the first spot outside Immaculate Conception Shelter the other night, hoping for one of the shelter's 70 coveted beds. A good number would ensure him a bed for the entire winter.
As Monday night wore into Tuesday, he was joined by more and more men, all looking for a cot indoors during the harsh winter months.
Jorge Cotto, legally blind. Mike Gillespie, a newbie to the streets from out of town. And Juan Johnson, a Vietnam War veteran who responded to questions about his homelessness by guiding my fingers to the shrapnel in his head, between one of the tanned folds on his forehead, and then the drooping pocket under his left eye.
By 4 a.m. they counted about 60 men outside the men's shelter, they told me later. Every hour the line grew. So did the tension.
By the time the door opened at 2 p.m. and the men realized there were more of them than there were beds, things got chaotic.
They started pushing, fighting, scrambling for one of the golden tickets.
"It was crazy," said Cotto, pulling up the leg of his jeans to show a knee bloodied from being pushed to the ground.
When I called the shelter's associate director Sharon Eastman, she said they had tried a new lottery system to assign beds throughout the winter. It didn't go as smoothly as they had hoped. They'll try something else next year.
But even she was saddened at what she saw — the level of desperation in men with lives interrupted by addictions or mental illness or the collapsed economy.
So many men that at a certain point they had to pile their black garbage bags of belongings in a corner to be checked later just to get everyone in from the cold.
At the shelter, they usually know their crowd. But Eastman saw a lot of new, younger, whiter faces, she said. Men who said they lost their jobs, veterans who said their benefits weren't stretching as far as they used to. Lots more who weren't from Hartford but came to the city looking for shelter, anyway.
All signs of the times. People losing jobs, health insurance. Bare food pantries. And here, outside the Hartford shelter, a sad display of what it all adds up to.They weren't able to give everyone a permanent bed, but they were able to squeeze everyone in Tuesday night. Still, Eastman worries about what's going to happen when it gets colder and others try to find shelter in the city's ever-shrinking number of shelter beds.
When I left, the sun was quickly going down and the men were huddling together against the dipping temperature, pulling at their hoodies, enviously eyeing a man bundled in a sleeping bag.
Alvarado, who said he'd attempted suicide just three months earlier by jumping off a highway overpass, had gotten lucky. He got a bed.
He waved as he made his way into the shelter, and I couldn't help but think of what one of the other men kept repeating when they described what happened outside the shelter.
They may have been fighting for scraps of paper with numbers on it. But all they wanted, they said, was a safe place to sleep.
"Tell people we're not animals," one man repeated. "Make sure you write that down and tell people that."
"We're not animals."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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