RAPID CITY, S.D. — Hours before first light, a freight train rumbles through downtown Rapid City, sounding off at every intersection. Wind whips frozen moisture across a field of thigh-high dead foliage. The snow covers an abandoned tennis shoe, black trash bags, a green backpack and a human being.
"That's the world's loudest alarm clock," said John Vukotich, referring to the locomotive passing less than 100 feet from where he sleeps. His face emerges from under two blankets, two sleeping bags, and a few layers of carpet scraps. He's still wearing the long underwear, wool socks, two sweaters, three coats, skullcap, scarf and shoes that he fell asleep in. A digital marquee nearby flashes 12 degrees.
"I wake up wet a lot from either being too warm or starting to shiver and being too cold," Vukotich told the Rapid City Journal (http://bit.ly/XQ2YU0 ). "You, all by yourself out there, night after night after night, it's very demoralizing."
Living on the streets during warm months is similar to camping, Vukotich said. But when temperatures drop, every day is a survival scenario.
It is a situation faced by more homeless people in Rapid City these days due to a new policy at Cornerstone Rescue Mission, the city's lone overnight homeless shelter. Officials there are now requiring patrons to prove they are looking for a job, among other new regulations, or they will be sent out. Even on some frigid nights, shelter officials have turned away homeless people and left precious beds empty overnight.
While he'd rather be in a warm shelter bed, Vukotich has learned hard lessons borne from experience that have taught him how to live on the street.
THE GOAL: STAY WARM, KILL TIME
After stuffing his bedding into trash bags to avoid collecting moisture, Vukotich walks to Hardee's to find warmth. He typically arrives at 5 a.m. when the fast-food restaurant on Fifth Street opens. Today, there's enough change in his jeans pocket to afford a tall coffee. He wipes the sleep from his eyes, yawns and waits for the Rapid City Public Library to open at 9 a.m.
The 58-year-old is balding with a concrete colored mustache. He has peripheral neuropathy and can't feel his feet most days. Vukotich grew up in the Deadwood area. He used to live in the Wilkins building on St. Joseph Street and work for a local company moving pianos. He has been cyclically homeless since 1992. Vukotich has family in the area, but tries not to burden them.
The goal of a homeless person in winter is simple: stay warm and kill time. The time seems to crawl as he waits for mealtime at Cornerstone, or at First United Methodist Church on Kansas City Street on Saturdays, or with a group of people that provide hot meals in a park next to East Boulevard bridge on Sundays.
Some homeless people drink or do drugs to deal with the cold. A person who doesn't drink may even swish alcohol in their mouth to blow a high number on a breathalyzer at the detox center, just to have a warm place to sleep for the night, Vukotich said.
On most days, Vukotich dissects newspapers for the crossword puzzles and reads books while sitting in the back of the library, away from most book browsers.
"As I age, I crave conversation and interchange of ideas." Vukotich said. "And advice that will not only help me but make possibly someone else feel better because they had a hand in helping me see something that I've been blind to."
At the library, Vukotich stares into a glass case with a fake fire inside. The faux fire — a classic image of security and stability — is a sore reminder of what Vukotich searches for everyday.
"If I can get to the point where I can be useful again," Vukotich said, "not just to myself but to society as a whole, it will put me on a path that I don't have to go back to these ugly places that I've been."
Places like "mummying yourself up" in a honey bucket at a construction site or an abandoned van with broken windows and a tractor tire inside just to stay out of the wind.
Vukotich doesn't want to be homeless. He was working and staying at Cornerstone before he was given an "out date" soon after he lost his job. Now he's trying to get Social Security benefits for his disability.
"I'm somewhat at wit's end," Vukotich said. "But at the same time, I gotta keep ... I gotta keep pluggin'. No one else is gonna do it. But I don't know how long I can keep it up."
SURVIVAL INSTINCTS KICK IN
Sleeping outside without shelter, exposed to harsh weather, can leave a person feeling vulnerable. When food and warmth are not guaranteed, survival instincts supersede other priorities.
"The elements will take you," said Gilbert Mesteth. The 48-year-old finds a place to rest his head each night, but because he doesn't have permanent housing, he's homeless by definition.
After serving time for a DUI offense, Mesteth slept at Cornerstone while trying to get his life in order. Injuries from construction work have left him disabled. Qualifying for Social Security is difficult, he said. After 90 days at Cornerstone, Mesteth was given an "out date" in November.
"When you don't have the Mission, it's a struggle for life," Mesteth said. He's confused why the mission asked him to leave, especially with winter pending, but he continues on.
Confronting these circumstances daily is enough to break a soul. But the spirit of independence is strong within Mesteth. No one else is going to look out for his well-being, Mesteth said. Opportunities can happen at any time, he said. Approaching a person to inquire about day labor is easier alone. Traveling in groups can attract unwanted attention.
Despite looking out for himself, Mesteth is willing to help other homeless people when he can. One morning, he gave his gloves to a man walking around in sub-zero temperatures with just a hoodie and jean jacket. He recently told two homeless men of the dangers of camping within city limits. People get desperate in extreme weather, he said. "They'll steal your stuff."
The barrel-chested man rides around Rapid City on a bicycle with a canvas jacket and backpack. To an observer, he appears to be on a mission; but really, he has nowhere to go. Most days are the same.
"Being homeless, not having anything, that's ground zero," Mesteth said. "What else can you do?"
On a recent day at the Rapid City Public Library, a book of photographs from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks sat on a table situated against a back wall. As Mesteth thumbs the pages, he looks around, making a mental checklist of other street people that showed up at the library. He does this in the food line at the mission and other places where homeless routinely gather. He's keeping tabs on who is alive.
Mesteth is confident he'll survive the winter, receive Social Security disability money and find permanent housing. But he's concerned about the older, frail street people that may not be strong enough to resist the cold. "If you don't see someone, you wonder and worry," he said. "You have to be aware of the elements and your survival."
A FAMILY OVER THE EDGE
The power of love may be the only thing keeping one family together as it faces unemployment and life without a home.
Colin Piña is doing everything he can to provide for his wife of 15 years, Heather Rosete, and their 10-year-old daughter, Ambria.
Piña, 41, is of Apache descent. He grew up near Glendale, Calif., but moved to Rapid City to care for his ailing mother. Rosete, 37, grew up in Alliance, Neb., but moved back to her Lakota roots to be closer to family.
A few years ago, Rosete was hospitalized for two weeks. Piña stayed home from his job at Applebee's to take care of Ambria. After his boss cut his hours to 16 a week, Piña couldn't afford rent for their subsidized housing at the Knollwood Townhouses on Surfwood Drive. He took his name off of the lease so that his wife and daughter could continue receiving assistance.
Piña lived on the streets to keep his family safe in the apartment. Rosete brought him food during the day. Last year, on Thanksgiving, a dispute in the apartment complex forced Rosete and daughter Ambria to move out.
Rosete and Ambria tried to stay at the Cornerstone women's shelter, but an employee told them that there were no open beds. Mother and daughter walked around Rapid City all night until they were allowed in at 6 a.m.
Piña eventually moved into the Cornerstone men's shelter. But mission policy would not allow the family to spend time together on mission property, Piña said. They couldn't eat together during the daily evening meal at the mission, which allows people not staying at the mission to join the soup line, he said. The Hardee's or Rapid City Public Library are some of the few warm and safe places they could be together as a family.
"Ambria thought it was going to be forever," Rosete said. She assured Ambria that they were not permanently moving into the shelter. When Rosete and her daughter would check into the shelter for the evening, Ambria often would not want to go inside.
"This has all been very stressful for her," Rosete said. "She's getting sick now more than ever." Ambria hasn't been sleeping well and was hospitalized for severe headaches, Rosete said.
A few weeks into December last year, Piña found a job in the kitchen at the Boys Club. He rose to the rank of kitchen supervisor but lost his job a few weeks ago. The mission gave Piña an "out date," stating that in less than a month of staying there, he had adequate time to find a job or save money for housing, Piña said.
Piña spent all the money he made from the Boys Club on a studio space at the Idlewild Apartments on St. Joseph Street. The family signed a waiver acknowledging the presence of sex offenders living in the complex and releasing the Idlewild of any liability, Piña said.
Someone knocked on the window when his wife was taking a shower. Ambria doesn't go outside to play. "It's not the best place," Piña said.
Piña is hopeful he'll get another job. He's on the top of the list at Hardee's to work in the kitchen, he said. The goal is to move out of the Idlewild and into more permanent housing. Someday, he wants to give his daughter a normal childhood.
"She deserves it," he said.