As temperatures in Humboldt county drop, the houseless people of Arcata are faced with the additional challenge of staying warm and dry. Only one block away from Cal Poly Humboldt, on a grass field by the freeway entrance, is a particular community where the people share resources and each other’s company during the harsh winter season.
There, you can find Jennifer “Skittles” Mathey, who has lived in the streets of Arcata for 20 years.
“We’re a family,” Skittles said with a bright smile. “When we move, we move together. We share everything.”
Originally from Wisconsin, Skittles has learned how to best manage in the Arcata cold and help the community of people around her. To protect against the harsh, cold winds, they use large umbrellas, trees and tarps to build a warm and secure shelter. The additional resources Skittles finds most useful during the cold is cardboard, newspaper and, surprisingly, ice.
“Cardboard and newspaper helps,” Skittles said, as she pointed to a platform made up of the stacked materials. Mathey explained that the stacked cardboard and newspaper bed keeps her and her friends very warm, so much so that she sweats some nights even in the 40-degree weather.
Within these covered forts, they sleep with other people and lots of blankets. In this situation, Skittles expressed that it gets hard to breathe. Having ice in the shelter helps cool and freshen the air. Once it has melted, it serves a double purpose as drinking water. They mostly get ice from the iced beverage known as Frazil that can be acquired at the local gas station.
Despite these methods, she shared that there are still many challenges that her and her community face in the winter season. She explained that the harsh winds cause their skin to become very dry and irritated. When asked what would best help with this, she replied, “lots of Vaseline.” Anything other than Vaseline, especially scented products, often further irritates their skin, she stated. Other resources they find most helpful are zip-up hoodies and loose socks.
“Pullovers are suffocating,” Skittles said, explaining that it’s much easier to bundle up in a zip-up hoodie like a sleeping bag. They’d like more comfortable clothing rather than something that is very tight on their body.
When asked what they would most love to receive as a donation, she said portable radios would mean the most to her and her community.
“We love radios,” she said. “We love music. There’s a song in my heart and they usually play it on the radio.”
Skittles explained that other benefits of having a radio include listening to weather reports and knowing what time of day it is. They would have a more difficult time finding this information otherwise.
Skittles is very grateful for Cal Poly Humboldt, explaining that it’s mostly these students who tend to check up on her on a consistent basis.
“A lot of my regulars are college kids,” she said. “Some of them are even teachers.”
This community of houseless people are constantly building up their shelters of warmth on their field by the freeway, utilizing every resource they get with gratitude. Skittles is very confident in their handling of the cold weather, and looks forward to celebrating her birthday on Dec. 23 with her friends around her.