Stanislaw clutches a soup pot as he sticks his head up above the rim of a manhole just long enough for police to fill it with steaming stew before he ducks back into the heating duct he calls home on the outskirts of Warsaw.
Night-time temperatures have plunged to a bone-chilling minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 Fahrenheit) here this week. But five metres underground, in this huge concrete cavern covered by a maze of hot water pipes, it’s a cozy 20 degrees Celsius.
The 58-year-old is among the Polish capital’s several thousand homeless people. Some live underground in the heating ducts criss-crossing the city and pumping hot water from communist-era coal-fired central heating plants to homes and offices.
“I don’t want to go to a shelter. The truth is that I drink alcohol and that’s strictly forbidden there,” said the grey haired, bearded man who says he has been living in the duct for the last twenty years.
He and four other long-term homeless men sharing the duct in an industrial area near the capital’s Zeran heating and power station, have few complaints about the biting cold outside.
“It’s warm in here, even too hot,” says a 40-something Zygmunt, dressed in just a T-shirt.
“We have to open up ventilation ducts so the air can circulate, otherwise it can be suffocating,” he insists.
“We have everything we need here. Each one of us has a corner with a mattress for sleeping, we share a kitchen area with a gas camping stove to cook and we have a bathroom area where you can bathe and wash clothes,” explains Zygmunt.
“We’ve got more hot water than we know what to do with. Just hot water in this faucet. When we need cold water, we have to let it cool down in buckets,” he says.
“For the toilet, we go to the supermarket next door,” adds a roommate Bolek, as he shaves.
“We can even do some ironing, although there’s no electricity. We simply place an iron on a hot pipe and the iron heats up quickly,” he adds.
In their cozy, if humble abode, the five men have a better chance of surviving the harsh Eastern European winter.
Others who squat in abandoned buildings and cottages on city garden allotments left unused by their owners over the winter, are more exposed to the elements. Sub-zero weather and alcohol often prove a lethal mix.
Over the last week nearly thirty people have fallen victim to a deep freeze in in Poland while nearly 70, mostly homeless Poles, have died since the beginning of the winter.
“Normally, when it’s around zero, it’s still ok. But now, it’s become dramatic,” said Monika Golebiewska, a Warsaw metropolitan police officer whose beat is a special daily patrol bringing food and clothing to the homeless when the weather turns deadly.
“Today we gave them white bean soup. Yesterday was the krupnik, a barley soup with bread and tins of food,” says the 34-year-old.
“It’s impossible to convince them to go to homeless shelters. They’ve chosen this life — they want to stay free,” she adds.
“You can’t drink even a little beer there. You have to respect the rules and be in by 9:00 p.m.. And me, I’m out collecting cans from the garbage bins at night,” says Zygmunt, proud to have collected 2.5 kilograms of cans during his last night out, earning him 10 zlotys (2.5 euros, $3.28).
His friend Waldek had even more luck. He collected scrap metal worth 52 zlotys.
But some pay the highest price for working nights when the mercury plummets far below zero.
“During each patrol, we’re afraid we’ll find someone who has died,” Golebiewska said.