The mounds on the sidewalk looked like piles of discarded bedding, but under each blanket was someone trying to survive Dallas’ coldest night in seven years.
The brutal cold front that rolled in Tuesday caused overnight temperatures to plunge to 13 degrees — the kind of cold that can kill. And at least two people did die overnight in Dallas after they were exposed to the elements.
For those without a place to go on nights like this, it’s not about staying warm. That’s futile in biting cold that makes your bones ache and your skin burn. It’s about just surviving.
Curled up under one of the nests of blankets on Park Avenue was Dawaylon Raymond, or Will as he’s known on the streets. He and four others claimed spots surrounding a small exhaust vent — prized territory on a frigid night.
Relying on the warm air and one another’s body heat, the group planned to endure the night on the sidewalk with the blankets a good Samaritan had brought them earlier.
Raymond, who is 20, had thought about going to a shelter, but he’d been turned down before when there wasn’t enough room. He didn’t want to haul all of his belongings miles away and risk losing his spot on the street.
On the coldest nights, shelters hit capacity quickly, leaving many to fend for themselves. Some crowd around fires under overpasses, ride DART trains as long as they can or huddle in doorways.
Others aren’t able to find warmth in time.
Two miles from Raymond’s spot, a 58-year-old woman was found dead Wednesday morning. A witness said it appeared she had frozen to death and fallen out of her wheelchair at a bus stop shelter.
"The sad, tragic fact is there’s not enough shelter beds, so even if every homeless person wanted to get into a shelter tonight, there’s not enough room," said David Timothy, founder of the nonprofit SoupMobile. "And that’s not a knock on the city. There just aren’t enough resources."
For Raymond, the cold was just one more challenge. "It’s hard enough being on the streets, period," he said.
He said he graduated from high school with top grades but ended up homeless after he got tired of his mother’s rules and left his home in Broaddus, in East Texas.
“Young and dumb,” he said as he shivered and clapped his hands to keep them from going numb, even with gloves. “I’m really paying for it now.”
People moved their blankets down Park Avenue next to The Stewpot in downtown Dallas on Tuesday night.
Just then a car drove up. “Y’all want some coffee?” a man shouted from the window. “No cream or sugar, though.”
Raymond jumped up from the curb. “That’s fine! This’ll warm us up anyway.” He grabbed a cup for himself after he made sure the others gathered along the street had one.
The man handing out coffee, who went only by James, said he’d spent years on Dallas’ streets after he left the military. Now he drives around offering hot coffee to the homeless on cold nights and bottles of cold water in the summer because he’s been there.
“This is the best I can do,” he said. “Give them coffee to warm them up and encourage them to not give up.”
He and Raymond talked about the city’s best dumpster for finding a good meal and how they wished people could spend just one night on the street to see what it was like.
“We need to do more than just talk the talk,” James said. “There are churches everywhere. Are they really doing all they could be doing? I could say a whole lot, but words are cheap to me. Actions speak for themselves.”
Raymond thanked James for the coffee and curled back up on a sack containing all of his belongings, hopeful for some sleep.
"It’s the wind that gets you. You can fall asleep, but as soon as that wind comes up under you — whoo you’re awake!" he said while pulling a beanie tightly over his head.
Sticking up from the top of the cap was a paper tag. "This hat was made for you with love," it said. It was signed "Charlie Gonzales."
Raymond said Gonzales is a 91-year-old man who had come by earlier and handed out knit caps.
"He hand-knitted them all himself," he said. "Everyone got one."
Thanks to Gonzales, James and the those who brought blankets, Raymond and his group made it through the night. But they said each day the challenge starts over.
"We’re not living out here," said 39-year-old Ryan Rule, his nose red and speech slow from the numbing cold. "We’re just surviving. I’d like to live again."