Yesterday, on the coldest weekend of the winter, the temperature was not much above freezing in 16-year-old Dorthea Butler's green-painted bedroom. The brown curtains at the windows fluttered. Papers and rags were stuck around the windows to keep the wind from whistling through, but it did no good. A small heater was on. Four blankets and a coat were spread on top of the bed.
Down the hardwood floor hallway, in the kitchen, four burners on the gas stove were turned up high. The oven was open and going full blast. Thirteen-year-old Denise Butler, dressed in a gown, socks and thick robe, stood near the stove, her hands stretched out over the burners to keep warm.
There was no other heat in the two-bedroom apartment at 3281 15th Pl. SE.
"I've had a cold for so long that I have forgot I even have it," said Delrita Butler, sitting in the kitchen near the stove. Her daughter, Dorthea, interrupted: "I had a terrible cold. You can't help for getting one with no heat."
Butler said the heat in the apartment building had been off for more than a week."I have called every day, but no one has come to fix it."
The building once was owned by controversial landlord Shao Tsi Hsu. However, it has changed hands several times in the past three years and now no one is quite sure who owns the place.
For the last year the tenants in the three-story apartment have not paid rent. No one has bothered to collect it. The people who live there hope to be moved by the city into low-income housing units. Butler is waiting for a three-bedroom unit.
Yesterday she sat at a table in the kitchen near the stove. "We keep the four burners and the oven going day and night," she said. "At night, it really doesn't do much good. It gets cold in the back bedrooms."
"Sometimes the stove kinda scares me," said Butler, a small woman with short hair. "I turn the burners down low at night. You just can't put on a nightgown and go to bed. You have to put on two or three gowns, socks and a robe . . . . I just get a comfortable spot in the bed and stay there all night. If you have to get up during the night, it's a trip. It's so cold."
Butler said one night last week it got so cold that her daughters slept in the bed with her. Even her dog, Princess, huddled at the foot of the bed.
In November, a heater in Dorthea's bedroom started a fire that destroyed the bed of her sister, Cynthia. Cynthia now sleeps on a couch in the living room.
Sometimes when they awake in the morning, the Butlers' eyes are filled with a creamy, white mucus that makes it hard to open their eyes until the mucus is washed out. Butler said she has sinus trouble that has worsened in the last week without heat.
For the past week, Butler has been getting up at 5 a.m., to boil water in several pots and pans so her daughters can have hot water to wash up or take a bath before going to school. She lugs the pots to the bathroom, where they are emptied into the basin or tub.
They also have to heat water to wash dishes and to scrub the apartment floors.
"It's hard," said the 32-year-old Butler, who moved into the apartment building almost six years ago. "I tell the kids it's bad. But some people have it worse than we do."