ELKHART — It’s 6:40 a.m. The temperature is 25 degrees but a stiff wind makes it feel more like 9.
A security light near the back door of the Salvation Army shines down on three people huddled together and waiting for the door to be unlocked.
Among them is a woman using a walker and man wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a bandana covering his head. The short sleeves on his shirt flap like a flag in the breeze.
He has no jacket.
Within five minutes, the doors open. They hurry in and are followed in the next minutes by others who appear out of the darkness seeking warmth and food.
Some people pull up in vehicles. One guy parks his bike near the door.
An older man walks gingerly to the door as if his feet ache from the cold.
By 7 a.m., there are nearly 20 people inside.
While far more than a hundred people in the area regularly find housing through agencies — including Faith Mission, which houses an average of about 140 people a night — there is a certain segment that chooses to take refuge from the weather in cars or abandoned buildings and elsewhere.
Those who reject shelters are often struggling with alcoholism or addiction, mental health issues or are convicted sex offenders who aren’t allowed at Faith Mission. But there are others who choose an independent outlook free of rules that accompany agency services.
Breakfast at the Salvation Army on North Main Street is a popular starting point for many living on the streets.
In the winter, they often serve upward of 200 meals. Becky Dick, who runs the kitchen, estimates more than half of the visitors are homeless.
Michael Smith was having breakfast there with a friend named Mark when he paused to talk about his circumstances.
The 56-year-old man has been living in a van at an undisclosed location for several months. Before that, he had been staying with his mother, but she had to move to a nursing home.
He survives with money he receives by donating plasma at a facility on the north side of Elkhart. He said he spends much of his time in his van either reading or trying to figure out where to get a job.
The cold makes it tough, but not that tough, he said.
He uses two sleeping bags and a blanket to stay warm. “It really hasn’t been that bad,” he said. “You get used to it.”
Smith said he likes to start his day at the Salvation Army. On this day, breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs with salsa, toast, sausage, a serving of mixed fruit and a slice of chocolate cake.
“This is a good place,” he said.
He and another visitor seated nearby start to rattle off places with meals available regularly: Faith Mission, Mountain Top Community Church on Second Street and another place on Kilbourn Street.
“You’re not going to starve in this town,” Smith said.
Steve, a 58-year-old man who declined to give his last name, said he’s been homeless off and on since about 1990. His current stretch started about seven years ago, but he admits his memory is not sharp and that he has quit paying attention to time and dates and calendars.
He declined to say where he stays at night, but said it is within walking distance of the Salvation Army.
He sounded indifferent about life in the winter. But asked about the worst aspect of the cold and his answer was immediate: “Walking in the snow.”
After breakfast, many of the homeless fan out on their own, but many of the routines are similar. Some move from station to station, trying to stay warm, stay out of trouble and avoid hunger.
Among the stops: Susanna’s Kitchen for lunch. Others pass the time at the Elkhart Public Library or the McDonald’s on Main Street while some head down Jackson Boulevard to Martin’s Super Market.
“It’s a very tight-knit community within those who are seeking out services,” said Daniel Browning, program director for Faith Mission in Elkhart.
“Word gets around pretty fast of who’s doing what and where. They got a pretty good network going on,” he said.
Browning said it is hard to estimate how many homeless people prefer not to use shelters, but he added, “It’s larger than (one) would think.”
Some area business are greeted with homeless visitors every day.
Managers at Martin’s allow people to come in to escape the cold and sit in the deli’s dining area.
Some show up when the store opens at 6 a.m.
“You gotta let them warm up,” said Zora Hall, manager of the deli.
But the store did begin enforcing new policies last year, Hall said.
The store moved crackers and ketchup packs out of reach of deli customers after they realized homeless people were taking them. The ketchup packs, she said, were becoming popular with those who would squeeze out the condiment into cups of hot water from the beverage area and make a tomato soup concoction, she said.
The store also prohibits sleeping. Those who do fall asleep at the tables are asked to leave.
One person was banned from the store, Hall said.
Prior to the crackdown, Hall said they would see about 10 people who frequented the deli and appeared to be homeless.
These days, she said there are only about three or four.
“We have to do what we have to do when running a business,” she said.
The Elkhart library has a very accommodating outlook.
Gwen Robison, assistant director of support services, said problems with homeless people are very rare.
“We have quite a few homeless patrons who come in, especially when the weather is nasty outside,” Robison said.
The homeless, just like anyone else, are free to use the library as long as they observe the library’s rules of conduct.
She said she’s aware of some who occasionally arrive when the library opens at 9 a.m. and stay all day.
Sleeping isn’t really a problem unless the snoring is noticeable, Robison said.
“Unless it’s disrupting people, we tend to not push it too much because we know they don’t have anywhere else to go,” she said.
McDonald’s, just south of the Salvation Army, also attracts homeless people, some of whom take advantage of the coupons for free coffee that appear on the back of many of the restaurant’s receipts.
Ken Hite, 46, describes himself as temporarily homeless and said he thinks the restaurant has a lack of patience for homeless. He said he was asked at least once to leave shortly after ordering a coffee. The fact others can sit around and leisurely use their laptops for long periods of time makes the company’s approach toward homeless people look discriminatory, he said.
But Veronica Ruiz, a supervisor at the store, said they try to be understanding.
“We want to be sensitive to them, but we also want make sure we keep up our customer’s atmosphere,” Ruiz said.
She said the store frowns on people sleeping or using the bathrooms to clean up.
She was unsure how long is too long for somebody to stay.
“Sometimes they want to sit here all morning or all afternoon,” she said.