TAMPA — They came carrying quilts and battered blankets, dragging scarred suitcases, toting trash bags filled with their lives. By 3 p.m. Tuesday, dozens of homeless people had formed a loose line that snaked across the parking lot of the Salvation Army.
The shelter wasn't scheduled to open for another hour. But it was cold outside.
Everyone wanted in: Even the guy with the new blue blanket, who almost always would rather sleep outside.
"Normally, we're about 90 percent full here. But with all this cold weather, we've been way above capacity," said Johnny Horton, program manager at the Tampa Salvation Army shelter. "Last night, we had all 125 bunks full. Had to add 18 mattresses on the floor. Tonight it's supposed to get even colder. So we'll have more."
When the temperature drops below 40 degrees, homeless shelters and churches across Tampa Bay open their doors. By Tuesday afternoon, most reported they were almost full, or already there. Even some that normally charge a nominal nightly fee were letting people stay for free.
"On cold nights, we don't turn anyone away, regardless of their ability to pay — or their past history," Horton said.
At his shelter, you can stay up to five nights for free. After that, rent is $10 a day.
"But on cold nights like this, we let in everyone — and just pay extra attention," he said.
At the Salvation Army shelter in St. Petersburg, workers were planning on putting mattresses across the cafeteria floor after dinner. The Good Samaritan Inn in Tampa was letting folks sleep on the lobby couches. And at Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa, women and children were told there is a six-month waiting list for the shelter. Workers fed them a hot dinner — and gave them a voucher for a room in a nearby motel.
"When my teeth start chattering, I know I gotta get inside," said Oscar Entrialgo, 49, who was one of the first people in line at the Tampa Salvation Army. He was wearing a Home Depot hoodie, clutching a book of word searches and a brand-new blue blanket — still in its Walmart plastic.
Most nights, for the last three months, Entrialgo has slept on the back porch of an abandoned apartment building. He prefers being outside, he swears, to sleeping in a shelter. Only not when it's cold enough to see his breath. "I'm blowing smoke out here," he said. "And I don't even have a cigar."
All day Tuesday, starting at 7 a.m., Entrialgo had ridden city buses. He would climb on, and if the bus was warm, he would sit in the back, take off his shoes, and take a nap. If the bus was cold, he'd hop off and wait for a warm ride. "Didn't matter where I was going," said Entrialgo, who used to be a garbage collector. "I just wanted to be warm."
Just after 3 p.m., the double doors of the Salvation Army in Tampa opened and Entrialgo and a flood of shivering people poured into the shelter. Dorm 3. Bed 17, a worker assigned him. "A top bunk!" he said, sounding excited.
He strode down the long hall, sank onto one of the mattresses lining the wall outside the showers to wait for dinner. Two more hours. He pulled the book of word searches from his backpack, along with a tattered red blanket. The new blue blanket sat beside him, still in its plastic.
"I can't wait to go to sleep tonight," he told a grizzled man with gray hair. Someone had given him the blanket, he said. Didn't it look warm?
The gray man nodded. He didn't have a blanket.
"Here," said Entrialgo, handing him the red one. "Now you do."
Later, someone asked him why he had given that blanket to a stranger. Sure, he had a new blanket. But wouldn't two be warmer, for when he was back to sleeping outside?
"Man needed a blanket. And I don't need that much to carry," said Entrialgo, smiling.
"Don't want to be hauling around a whole bunch of blankets, looking like some homeless person."