Who knows who first wore the dark green coat with the golden hooks, and then discarded it.

It sure looks like it's been around a while, but it's the only coat Heather Mercado owns to protect herself against the arctic temperatures this winter. And she's happy for it.

The pretty 29-year-old is already wearing most of the pants she owns.  She dons a knit cap over her long ponytail, and a sweatshirt with a hood. The dark green coat goes on next and then a hot pink scarf. As much as possible, Mercado is braced for a day outside in bitter conditions.

"Sometimes I think — ‘Man!’ ’’ she says about the intensity of the cold on a day when the morning temperature is 2 degrees. "But if I start complaining about it, then that's what I'll think about."

What Mercado really needs is the one thing that will protect her from the elements — four walls and a roof to call her own.

She is just one of hundreds and hundreds in the county who are homeless during the toughest winter in decades.  Polar vortexes and searing winds have been especially cruel to those on the streets.

And it's pushed some local homeless facilities to their limits.  

 "It's been brutally cold," says Keith Shetter, director of donor relations at the Water Street Mission. "They (homeless) just can't live outside in this kind of weather. We used to see people take shelter in their vehicle; you can't do that this winter.

"The numbers are up, obviously because we're seeing the temperatures at extremes."

He says the Mission won't turn anyone out into the cold, even though it has exceeded the 250-bed capacity since last week.

Sleeps at YWCA

At night, Mercado sleeps at the YWCA Lancaster, which houses the Lancaster County Council of Churches’ winter shelter program for women.

Mercado agreed to allow a reporter and photographer from Lancaster Newspapers to spend 24 hours with her to raise awareness of both homelessness and services, like the winter shelter, that are available.

On Tuesday, Mercado had lots more to think about than the cold. Like how to turn her situation around. She had appointments all over town, written on a small, yellow-lined tablet in blue metallic ink, including doctor's visits, counseling sessions and social service appointments.

So, cold or not, if she wants to get going, she's got to get walking.


Gel the color of the deep sea is squirted out on Mercado's belly. It must be chilly, but she doesn't wince.

The gel is to lubricate the skin and help the scope pick up the baby's heartbeat.

Mercado is at SouthEast Lancaster Health Services on Arch Street to get her monthly prenatal checkup.

Linda Gort, a certified registered nurse practitioner, informs Mercado that her uterus is exactly where it should be with a 4½-month pregnancy.

That's good news. It also means that Mercado has about 20 weeks to secure housing.

"You know if you don't have housing by the time the baby is born, it will go into foster care," Gort reminds Mercado.

Mercado nods. She knows. It's the wolf at the door.

Gort hands the scope to the baby's father, Luis Lopez, 33, to pick up the heartbeat. He and Mercado have been together for three years, the same amount of time they have lived in Lancaster. Lopez does locate the heartbeat but gets a lot of static. Gort takes it back and finds a better spot on Mercado's tummy.

There it is. Ba-bump, ba-bump. Clear as a bell.

Now, if Gort can just convince Mercado to get a flu shot.

Gort takes her time with Mercado, even though it's a busy, busy day at SouthEast Lancaster Health Services. The spacious waiting room is filling up with patients, and the staff is bustling about. On top of all the regular appointments, inmates from the Lancaster County Prison are there to be seen as they shuffle by in orange jumpsuits.

The health facility provides the same high-quality health care to all its patients, no matter their financial status. Which is good for people like Mercado.

"Yay, you're wearing green today," says Gort with a smile.

For a second, nobody gets it.

Then Mercado grins in agreement.

She knows people don't just walk down the street and suddenly turn homeless, without explanation. There are a lot of reasons. Hours at a job are cut, rent is too high, medical bills. She knows that, for some people, it was bad choices that got them there.

She also knows she's one of those people.

During her last visit, in fact, she was wearing one of those orange jumpsuits worn by prison inmates.

After a brief deliberation, Mercado chooses to get the flu shot.

Gort asks Mercado some questions about her health, including her muscular dystrophy.  

"I'm doing pretty good," says Mercado. "My legs hurt and the muscles get tight, but I'm OK."

Gort schedules Mercado for a more intensive checkup in February, one that may determine if the baby has any health issues.

Before she leaves the building, Mercado signs up for an appointment with the Healthy Beginnings Plus program, a Lancaster General Hospital health and well-being program for low-income pregnant women. A nurse from the program explains she can come back to SouthEast Lancaster Health Services the following day.

Mercado would like to walk to the Department of Public Welfare office to drop off some forms, including a request for a half-priced bus pass, but she doesn't want to be late for her meeting at Tabor Community Services.  

She's heard there's a chance to find housing there.

So, back on with all the layers. Back on with the green coat.

Mercado knows which way to walk so the buildings protect her from the wind. She knows that the sidewalk grates, even the ones without snow, can be slick, so she avoids those. Her black sneakers, the ones with the rip on the side, and the rest of her clothes came from the Council of Churches clothing bank. They are not the best for winter weather but they'll do.

By the time she's walked back across town to Tabor, on East King Street, Mercado is much warmer and glad to shed the layers of clothing once she's inside.

Sara Slaughter, a social worker at Tabor's CHART program, interviews Mercado. The Community Homeless Assessment  & Referral Team was launched by the county in September as a way to coordinate the efforts to find housing for the homeless.

But Tabor's director, Bob Thomas, says the response from people needing housing was overwhelming.

"We were staffed to assess 200 people a month," Thomas recalls, "but in the first month of CHARTS operation we had 489 referrals; in October 463, and we started to get a backlog.

"It was frustrating and bothered us very much. The cold might have had something to do with it. Before, people found it tolerable to stay on the streets, but there's no question this kind of weather makes it intolerable."

Thomas says they have cleared the backlog, but he doesn't expect the problem to get better, especially considering the county is at 95 percent occupancy among rental units.

"Landlords know the market will support higher rents and so they charge more," Thomas says. "But many people don't have incomes to support the higher rent."

Alcohol and jail

During the assessment, Slaughter asks Mercado, "What would you say are the reasons you are homeless?"

"Alcohol and jail," Mercado answers without hesitation.

Police reports confirm Mercado's story that she was found intoxicated in the street one morning in October. In the emergency room, the report says, she kicked a doctor in the face. She was charged with aggravated assault and was sentenced to three months in jail.

It was not her first scrape with the law but, she says, it was her best one.

"Jail was the best thing that ever happened to me," Mercado says. "I got closer to God.  I already knew him before but …"

Mercado said she mostly read her Bible in prison and plotted how her life would be different once she got out.

"There was a time a couple of years ago — I was working two jobs, I had a house, had a car and a family," she says.  "But drugs, drugs got in the way of all that."

Mercado says the police raided her house and she lost her two children, 7 and 12, to foster care. Her marriage fell apart.

She managed to get her children back and did find temporary housing.

"I thought I could drink instead (of drugs)," she said. "But turns out, I can't.’’

Now her two children are staying with her sister in Johnstown.

"They can't be going through all this," Mercado says of her current situation.  

But she hopes that she can reunite with her children and start a new family  with Lopez and their baby — if she can find housing.

"I might know of something," Slaughter tells her. "But don't count on it and don't get excited."

Mercado tells Slaughter that she needs to find housing before her baby arrives in June.

"I pray to the heavens that you would be set by then," Slaughter tells her.

Mercado can't help but feel encouraged.

A warm meal

The meeting at Tabor ends in time for Mercado to walk to the Water Street Mission for the last hot meal of the day.  

Burritos and a green salad are on the menu, and the line is as long as the room. It would probably snake out the door if it weren't so cold outside. Everyone who comes is served.

"We're funded solely by donations from individuals, businesses and churches," says Shetter, the Mission official.  "But there's more people living on the edge now, at or below the poverty line. Based on the economy and unemployment, we have seen those numbers go up."

Shetter says it's a great thing that Lancaster County people are so generous.

"They've supported us for 108 years," he says. "People not only give of their money but their time as well here, and that's nice to see."

It's dark now. The temperatures have dropped, the wind has picked up and it's not always easy to see the sidewalk.  

Mercado needs to pick up prescriptions, and the CVS on Lemon Street has a pharmacy that is still open.   Even though there is a slight discrepancy about her insurance, Mercado is able to fill her prescriptions.

It's a pretty long walk to the YWCA in these conditions, so Mercado stops at the Lancaster County Public Library on Duke Street to drop off some videos she had checked out. She was able to watch the movies at Lopez's brother's house. The library is a welcoming place to keep warm, she explains.  

The computers are available for anyone to use. It's a way for homeless people to have an email account. But Mercado doesn't have an email address. She doesn't have a telephone and she needs to get a photo ID.

"I need the bus pass to get out and get my ID," she explains.

Mercado's boyfriend, Lopez, has spent the afternoon sleeping at his mother's one-room efficiency so he can work overnight cleaning restaurants and office buildings. He also picks up odd jobs, like shoveling snow, during the day whenever he can.

After a quick warm-up at the library, it's out the back door for the short walk to the YWCA, where she will spend the night.

Mercado is familiar with Shayna Watson, who runs the winter shelter program. Watson has a Master of Divinity degree, and it shows. She keeps the women in motion with a soft, gentle authority that she has practiced as a pastor at Penn State's Hershey Medical Center.

"We always need volunteers here," Watson says. “They greet the women, make sure they have a voucher from the mission or the police. They can't have any active (arrest) warrants. And we confiscate all medications and anything that can be used as a weapon."

There are women already at the shelter. Because of the cold, the program is opening its doors a half-hour earlier.

Downstairs, the women can get a locker, a hot shower and a mat to sleep on.

It doesn't seem like much.

"I appreciate this so much," says Mercado of the program, after she's taken a shower. "I don't know what I would do or where I would be if I didn't have this."

The toiletries, like shampoos and soaps, are provided through donations.  

Mercado puts double moisturizer on her chapped red cheeks.

Some of the women (usually about 40 per night) have a snack of noodles in a cup or hot chocolate as they wind down. Volunteers help the women attend to small needs like Band-Aids,  moisturizer or dental floss. One volunteer is clipping the overgrown toenails of a woman while another is putting on pillowcases.

Then everyone helps put sheets on the mats and lays them out on the gym floor. Volunteers take turns sleeping in the next room and checking on the women throughout the night.

It's lights out by the time Mercado announces she's “so tired.’’

The night light is a gentle glow from phones that can be charged in a row of outlets.

When the lights go dim, there's not much noise. Some gentle rustling, some soft snoring. But it doesn't take long for the coughing to begin. Several women have a loud cough that persists through the night. The sound of some of the coughing suggests that a medical person should at least take a listen.

"A lot of women are sick, as you can imagine," Watson warns. "They're out in the cold and there's a lot of germs going around."

Cup of coffee

In the morning, Mercado says she slept just fine, despite all the coughing.  She gets a small cup of coffee and starts getting dressed for the day.

It's 6 a.m. and the women have an hour to clear out of the building.

The consequences of being late are not being allowed back that night.

"We have very strict rules because we're using the facility at the Y," Watson says.

Because of the extreme cold, there's a shuttle bus that will take the women to the warming station at St. James Episcopal or the Water Street Mission.

Mercado opts to hoof it down to the mission for a hot breakfast and then back to the Anchorage Program, a breakfast at St. James Episcopal Church, for a second one.

But the bad news quickly circulates among the women that it has snowed.

It is only a dusting, but some clearly do not have the footwear for a snowy day on the streets. One woman is in socks and sandals.

Mercado is dressed exactly as she was the day before.  She's planning on signing up for the mission's clothing bank that is open Thursdays to get more clothes.

After breakfast, Lopez meets up with Mercado for the food distribution at Water Street Mission.

The temperature is in single digits when the center opens at 9:30 a.m. Except they can only let five or so people in at a time, which makes the wait about a half-hour more for Mercado and Lopez. They shift their weight and move their legs, trying to stay warm. A couple of well-worn Hondas pull up into the lot. The drivers opt to stay warm inside their cars instead of braving the elements in line.

It's nice food inside the center.  Good bread, canned vegetables, but no produce today.

"I love to get fruit (for the baby),’’ Mercado says, touching her stomach.  She says when she can afford to, she uses her food stamp money at Central Market to get fresh fruit and vegetables.

"They cut it back," says Mercado of her monthly allotment of food stamps.  "It used to be $200."

Mercado and Lopez drop off the food at his brother's apartment for storage.  

They plan to grab a warm lunch at Crispus Attacks and then go to the welfare office for the bus pass discount.

One by one, Mercado is ticking off her list. But just as quickly, new appointments are added, including ones with her parole officer and a mental health checkup. And the temperatures don't look like they are easing anytime soon.

"I don't care what it takes," says Mercado as the wind whips under her coat. "I'm on a mission."

Susan Baldrige is an investigative reporter for Lancaster Newspapers. She can be reached at sbaldrige@lnpnews.com or (717) 481-6135. You can also follow @sbaldrige on Twitter.