NEW YORK, JAN. 7 -- There was plenty of room in city shelters here today as the mercury dipped to 13 degrees, but Catherine, who was panhandling for change at Grand Central Station, was having none of it.
The 58-year-old woman, bundled beneath two overcoats and a white shawl covering her gray hair, said she much prefers the noisy accommodations of the New York subways. She would not give her last name.
"Who needs to live in such a horrible place for a few hours a night, and to be thrown out in the morning?" Catherine said of the shelters. After dark on the subways, she said, "the police have been very nice and merciful. As long as you don't lay straight out, they'll let you sit up and doze off."
Catherine is one of thousands of homeless New Yorkers, among many more thousands of homeless Americans, driven by this week's frigid weather to seek the warmth of bus stations, train terminals and public or private shelters. A week-long, nearly nationwide cold snap has been blamed for 33 deaths since Saturday.
In Denver, where the below-zero temperatures recorded this week are not unusual, shelter operators and city officials reported an apparent drop in the number of homeless people seeking shelter. Of the city's 1,050 beds, about 900 are filled each night, said Charles Sauro, the city's coordinator of services for the homeless.
But in Los Angeles, where residents were inclined to describe the mid-30- and 40-degree readings as "freezing," the city has scrambled for additional places for the homeless in hotels, motels, recreation centers and armories. The city provides vouchers to pay for accommodations when the temperature drops below 40, or below 50 with rain.
Atlanta, which usually opens its shelters at night, kept them open today as the normally temperate city was paralyzed -- schools and downtown abandoned -- by three inches of snow and sleet. ("The South is closed today," one ice-bound Atlanta resident said.)
Eberhart Dacha, assistant director of a city-run shelter in a church gymnasium, said it housed 258 men Wednesday night, rather than its normal 200. Estimates of the number of homeless in Atlanta range from 6,000 to 10,000.
Birmingham, also a ghost town today under a shower of sleet and freezing rain, recorded overnight readings in the low 20s. Across Tennessee, the temperature was in the teens; northward in Louisville, it dropped to single digits.
Chicago, which has been sheltering about 2,300 homeless people each night, got what some regarded as a respite today as the temperature rose above zero for the first time in 48 hours. (Mayor Eugene Sawyer had what almost everybody regarded as a respite: He was vacationing today in Puerto Rico.)
Temperatures in Minneapolis remained in the negative numbers. Churches had opened their doors to the homeless, although beds remained at city shelters. Elsewhere in Minnesota, the tiny town of Embarrass hardly noticed that it had taken national honors Tuesday with a reading of 30 below zero.
"We're so used to it up here that life goes on as normal," Etta Butala said. "We just never go out without longjohns."
In Boston, with several inches of snow on the ground and more forecast tonight, social workers have patroled in vans each evening to offer shelter to the homeless and blankets and food to those who insisted on staying on the street. The temperature there has hovered around 20 degrees, and city shelters have accommodated 1,400 people each night this week.
Among those in the Boston City Hospital shelter tonight were Robert and Becky White and their three children, who were evicted from a three-room apartment last month. "We had a full tank of oil all paid for in that apartment," Becky White said as she gazed across a smoky room full of cots and about 75 people.
Elsewhere in New England, Hartford reported that its 300 beds for the homeless were filled. "We're at the point where our resources are being stretched, but we don't intend to turn anyone away," said Allen Kaplan of the city Department of Social Services.
In Manchester, N.H., officials at the city's largest emergency shelter had to borrow several couches to accommodate more than 50 homeless people. "We ran out of beds the first night it was really cold," said Henrietta Charest of New Horizons for New Hampshire. "When we opened two years ago, I thought we'd never fill this place."
Officials in New York City said more than 9,700 homeless men and women sought refuge in city shelters this week. But that is less than the peak of 10,600 reached last winter, and officials say at least 1,000 shelter beds remain empty.
Another 18,000 homeless families are housed in New York welfare hotels, and advocates for the homeless say there are at least another 30,000 on the streets.
Although police at Grand Central Station in New York normally use German shepherds to drive the homeless from benches reserved for commuters, they seem to have relaxed the policy in recent days.
"When it gets cold, most of our clients take to the subway system," said Diane Sonde, director of Project Reachout, a nonprofit group. "The cops don't hassle them, it's warm and it's a good place for panhandling."
Sonde said that despite her efforts, many homeless are too "stubborn" to seek shelter. Weeks like this, when the weather is coldest, "is when my conscience hurts," she said.
Clusters of homeless men and women were huddled today in the hallways of Grand Central, some of them outside the famed Oyster Bar, where a line of well-dressed customers was waiting to dine on the smoked Atlantic salmon or New England clam chowder.
Catherine, who was camped with a shopping cart full of belongings near the 42nd Street entrance, said she could no longer afford an apartment after losing her job as a maid. She said she had lost touch with her family in Canada and never really recovered from the death of her husband 13 years ago.
"Years ago, there were rooming houses everywhere," Catherine said. "Why were they all torn down?" In warmer weather, she said, she sleeps uptown in places like Riverside Park if she has a companion to protect her against possible assailants.
Still, people are more generous in this icy weather, Catherine said, and some who work in the neighborhood bring her food because "they know I'm not a con woman out to feed my dope habit.
"Me, I'm a survivor," she said.
Staff writer Morris Thompson and special correspondents Michael Rezendes, Susan Kelleher, Janice Kramer, Holly Morris and Matthew Lait contributed to this report.