Hopeful from Homelessness
January 17, 2018
I live in a warehouse in Central Denver. The immediate area in which I live is an interesting mix of commercial and industrial development, one-story, brick boxes that seem lifeless from the outside faced by giant arrangements of metal tanks and pipes leading from here to there, steam and reverberated mechanical noise clear in the man-made, artificial din. There is a marijuana grow operation here and a food processing plant there. The streets surrounding where I sleep at night are largely devoid of pedestrian traffic, and after dark it can be a place where small shivers run up your spine. There are plenty of places one can imagine others lurking. It is an impersonal, sterile place; where stopping to ask for help would not cross the mind. It is winter time at present and the trucks and automobiles puff white clouds while waiting for the traffic light to change. The sky is gray and the temperature the same. A man pushes a shopping cart full of his possessions; the remains of a metal filing cabinet, drawers akimbo, a greasy electric starter motor, cardboard, Styrofoam coffee cups, a pair of scissors and several kitchen knives (a paring and a boning), bags and plastic containers, books by Lee Child and James Paterson, issues of Cosmopolitan and People magazines, wrinkled and torn clothing, blankets of great variety, a bicycle chain, empty water bottles, fast food containers, a stuffed bear with an eye missing, several worn out pillows, a one-man tent – neatly folded, a couple of sleeping bags and a few plastic garbage bags tightly secured with bailing wire. There are two five gallon buckets secured to the sides of the cart, one containing a mix of nuts and bolts, cotter pins, washers and insulated wire, the other bucket’s contents unknown as the lid is fastened down with a movers come-along strap. The man seems intensely preoccupied, as if he is preparing a speech or other presentation. He speaks under his breath and occasionally appears to piss himself off. He strikes his lower jaw with his fist. Or perhaps he is angry with his audience. The tone of his declaration becomes dark and ominous. He uses his hands to drive his point home. Abruptly he stops and looks at me. He seems startled that I’ve been eavesdropping and I am more than a bit embarrassed. He looks past me, over my shoulder and gestures for me to look as well. I turn and see nothing. I expand my field of view. Nothing. I look back and he is pushing his shopping cart away. Berating the persons of his ire, he is now passive, then angry, now passive again. I am a part of the community here. The street people, of whom I am just one small step removed, move restlessly.
While homeless, I was taught where to go to find the best food, and what time was ideal for entering the Human Services building on 12th Street; make sure you ask for Rosie. I was instructed on topics as varied as who might put you to work for a few hours to where the best spots for sleeping unmolested were. I was helped with gifts of money and necessities by people who had very little to give. I was treated as a person with needs and wants beyond the physical; companionship, support, a sounding board, a soap box. We knew one another on site. The dirty fingernails, the stained coats and scarves, the reddened face and wrinkled skin, dead give-aways.
Some are beyond the hope of return. They were all-in. The fear in the eyes like a beaten dog, subservient and servile, slaves to some unknown trauma past. Others were completely without the ability to socialize, skirting, creeping like creatures heretofore unseen and unfelt, draped in torn and hole-filled coverings, snatching an offering without eye contact, quickly moving the prize to a personal safe place and then scurrying off, mentally, emotionally and spiritually bankrupt.
Sign-flyers are ubiquitous. Homeless, Hungry, Please Help, God Bless. Homeless Mother, Homeless Vet, Homeless Father Needs Money for Motel Room for Family. Out of Work, Stuck in Denver, Need Bus Fare to Oklahoma. Why Lie, I Need a Drink. Please Help, God Bless. Some put on a show. A guitarist sings for his supper and another man pays him to stop. One performer dances for her audience; a debasement, rallied on by her benefactors. Laughter and disgust pervade the air, stinking. Others move farther into the underbelly of the street, trading bodies and fluids for drugs or a warm bed.
The age of a person living this life is difficult to gauge. The weather and the bad diet, the constant stress and alcohol all combine to turn a fresh-faced young man into a gargoyle of his former self. Eyes sink back into their sockets, red and puffed from lack of sleep. Skin becomes like loose animal hide, worn and leathery. The skin will often cling to the frame, as muscle tissue beneath dissipates, a gaunt, hunched, twisted wreck remaining.
Single women alone are at great risk. The risk surrounding single mothers alone is greater by magnitude. How a particular mother of two children, living out of an automobile can move from day to day, taking care for, as best she can, the lives of her children is beyond my ability to fathom. The children attend school. They eat three meals a day. They are socialized. When speaking to the kids a deep embarrassment is evident, understandably. They act as if they are not homeless, merely living here until they can go back to where they used to live, just a short time from now. If the mother is helping with this story line I could not find fault. It brings hope to a seemingly hopeless situation. The older child, a boy of perhaps seven years, seems to know the true nature of their predicament and my heart aches for him. He tries his best, with a stiffness of lip, to keep a positive attitude and I wonder at his ability. He is a champion and will do very well someday.
I've lived in Denver my entire life and for eighteen months of that I spent homeless on the streets. While eighteen months seems a short stint, it was the longest eighteen months of my life. Living homelessly is a lonely, challenging, depressing, hopeful, vital, obscene existence. It is tailor made for those with an ability to cling, with white knuckles, to hang on desperately, to stumble, to fold, to stand up and to hide. It is profound and meaningful in a ways I had never dreamed possible. It is horribly demeaning and brings out the worst in many of us. Homelessness allows its practitioners to realize a dignity that seems, at first glance, artificial or forced. Homelessness attracts scorn and contempt, ridicule and outrage. And it engenders feelings of compassion and sympathy, faith and security on the part of the domiciled bystander.
The problem of urban homelessness seems insurmountable.
The homeless issue in Denver is exasperated by the rising cost of housing in the area. A one bedroom apartment in Denver now averages $1400. This price puts nearly all of the available housing out of range of anyone making a below average or minimum wage. The living wage in Denver1 is calculated to be $12.24 per hour with the minimum wage at $8.31 per hour. It is estimated2 that it would require an individual working for minimum wage in Denver to work over 90 hours per week in order to afford a small, one-bedroom apartment. The rent on a friend’s last bona fide residence required that 50 to 60% of his monthly income go to paying rent. He was bringing in $13 per hour at the time. In the event of an emergency (an automobile breaks down, medical issues and hospitalization episodes, a divorce, death of a spouse or other loved one) the renter’s security and stability can be shaken. A recent report3 generated in 2014 by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative cites the high cost of housing to be one of the main causes of homelessness in Denver. It seems preposterous that one of the main causes of homelessness in Denver is a lack of affordable housing. This would seem to be the most addressable cause. A recent 100,000 Homes campaign registered an 80 percent success rate keeping people off the streets. This organization has been providing affordable housing to the homeless for four years now and has been highly successful in helping others rebuild their lives and reestablishing their dignity. Philanthropic foundations and a national bank have recently fronted the city of Denver $8.6 million in funding for a five-year program to house Denver’s chronically homeless. The city recently stated it has cut the first check, amounting to $188,000, to begin the repayment process. The program has met with early success, according to the company that the city hired to gauge the efficacy of the program. A unique funding method is utilized with this program which relies on private investors to provide the money for social programs. The mayor has proposed setting aside $670,000 additional dollars via Denver’s 2018 budget to expand the program’s available housing by 100 units. According to the paper detailing the early results4 from the Denver Supportive Housing Social Impact Bond Initiative, the program has reached its early target of housing men between the ages of 40 to 50 and keeping them housed. The chronically homeless often return to jail and after being released, rarely receive follow-up services and return to a cycle of jail, detox and emergency services. There may be a reason to celebrate yet.
Amy K. Glasmeier and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2018). Living Wage Calculation for Denver County, Colorado. Retrieved from http://livingwage.mit.edu/counties/08031
Andrew Aurand, PH.D., MSW, et al, National Low Income Housing Coalition. (2018). Out of Reach 2017: The High Cost of Housing. Retrieved from http://nlihc.org/sites/default/files/oor/OOR_2017.pdf
Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. (2014). A Point in Time Survey. Retrieved from http://everyonecounts.mdhi.org/2014_report
Sarah Gillespie, Devlin Hanson, Mary K. Cunningham, Mike Pergamit, Shiva Kooragayala. (October 30, 2017). Breaking the Homelessness–Jail Cycle in Denver: Early Results from the Denver Supportive Housing Social Impact Bond Initiative. Retrieved from https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/94226/ui-denver-sib-factsheet.pdf