Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Eye Contact

To be honest in the past I have often avoided homeless people. I didn't know what to say or do. Not only that, there was the awkward moment when they would ask for money. There was a real part of me that wondered if money wouldn't hurt them more than help them, so what did I do? I walked to the other side of the street, made sure my window was up when I came to their corner but mostly just avoided eye contact.

Ventura California is a beautiful town with amazing parks, beaches and piers.

Me in a tree, at a height my wife was mad about, in a park in Ventura
The main pier is really the heart of the town. At its base stands a taco shop that is never in short supply of fish tacos or customers. Along its sides, anglers can be seen talking, sharing a drink or slicing fish guts. This attracts sea gulls and pelicans that soar just above those walking and around the pier hoping to get the innards of the most recent catch. Joggers and bikers are out improving their shape by passing over the aged planks. And between all this is hundreds of tourists trying to take it all in. Get on the pier for 30 seconds and you see why it attracts so many. The view is spectacular and the pier extends out enough that looking outward you feel as if you're miles at sea with nothing but its expanse in view. Turn to the side and you see the endless extent of shoreline with waves crashing on the beaches.

View from the main pier in Ventura
There is one group of people I failed to note; they are also fellow passengers on this pier—the homeless. You might call them unnoticed, but there is an active participant in this passive description. The opposite side of the pier from them is always a little more busy, and a hard-to-find bench seat is always wide open when shared by one such occupant. City police are anxious to ensure these vagrants do not become a deterrent to the cities most iconic feature and, therefore, allow no panhandling or sleeping. Even loitering for too long will have them asking you move along, that is, if you are loitering and you look homeless.

It was dusk, and the crowds had begun to thin. I noticed an older man sitting on one of the benches. His bike with a small trailer sat next to him. It was filled with half broken fishing poles, nets, old magazines and some card board signs used for begging.

He was talking on an old style flip phone. I sat next to him as the last light of day began to flee. Once he got off the phone, I began to talk with him.

Raymond was 63. He was born and raised in Ventura and had spent most of his life there. Throughout most of his adulthood, he had been a construction laborer working odds and ends jobs: painting, carpenter work or pouring concrete.

"How long have you been on the streets?" I ask.

"Two years."

"Were you ever homeless before that?"

"No."

"How did it happen?"

"Got in a fight with a roommate and got thrown out. I had a job at the time and thought I'd be out for a few weeks while I saved rent, but then I lost my job. At first I started panhandling and could get enough for a hotel and food most nights but not very often anymore."

"Why the decrease?"

"I'm not sure. Maybe people get used to seeing me and don't feel like helping the same guy over and over."

"Who were you talking to?"

"My wife, Delphina, it's her 60th birthday today."

"Your wife! Where is she?" I will admit my question probably showed too much surprise. It seemed odd he'd be speaking to his wife on a cell phone while homeless. Looking back, it may not have been that strange, but it took me off guard.

"She lives in town. She's a care taker for an older woman. The job gives her a room to live in. I go and visit her most days. I will try to visit her later tonight." Much like the homeless, working widow I met in Arizona, this challenged my view of who homeless people are. I just never would have pictured a 60 year old couple, one working as a care taker and the other roaming the streets, when I thought of the homeless.

"Any kids?"

"I have a daughter from my first wife. Well technically...," he paused, "we never married."

He goes onto explain that he met, fell in love with and moved in with Ruby, a woman with a 9 year old son.  He raised the boy and they had a daughter together as well. He was with Ruby until she died in 2001 of a stroke. A year later, the boy died. They are buried together in a cemetery he often visits. The daughter he had with Ruby lives in Fresno with her 3 kids, his grand kids, ages 10, 8 and 6, but he has not seen her or the kids in 3 years, which he says is because she hates his new wife, Delphina, and refuses to see him until he drops her.

"What do you plan to get Delphina for her Birthday?"

"I planned to get her a mother's ring. See she has 7 children from before she married me and she wants a ring that has each of their birthstones. She asked her kids to get it for her but they wont. I put some money down on it but don't have it paid off yet. I'll will just tell her about it for her birthday."

I ask him about where he sleeps and it sounds like wherever he can. Police must be fairly aggressive in Ventura when it comes to vagrancy because he says they often wake him up and tell him to move on and often give him a ticket as well. He always asks them where he should move on to and to go ahead a write the ticket because it won't do any good.

When asked how he plans to get off the streets he mentions 2 options:

A few years ago he visited his sister in Vegas. While there he went to a party and a guy who runs an HVAC shop offered him a job. As he told me about it, he pulled out a well worn business card of an HVAC mechanic from Vegas. "I could get to Vegas and take him up on his offer."

"Another option is Social Security," he continued. "I was in the social security office today and, being 63, am eligible for my benefits, but only $600 a month. In Ventura that won't even pay for rent. But, if I wait until 66, I'll get $1,200."

What a dilemma. Get $600 a month now, an amount he sees as small enough that he may be better off waiting on the streets with nothing until he can get $1,200 and be able to afford rent. The fact that a homeless man even considered waiting made me rethink some of my perceptions. I thought of that famous experiment which tested if little children could wait to eat a marshmallow if they were offered a a second marshmallow for waiting. Could you take the two marshmallows later if it meant living in the cold for 3 years while you waited?

We discussed a few other things, I got a picture (although with almost zero light left it wasn't very good), and I left.

Raymond and Myself on the pier in Ventura
I did give him a small sum of money, but what struck me was he seemed far more appreciative of the conversation than the money. I am certain that if no money had exchanged hands, both he and I would have been glad to have met. What did he appreciate? I think that it was simply being treated like a human, a child of God.

People often rise or fall to the level that others treat them. We often call this rising to the expectations. When others have faith in us and trust in our ability to succeed, it helps us believe in ourselves. Often, it takes others to think we can before we ourselves, like the little engine that could, can say we actually think we can. Hence why athletes praise the coach that believed in them. But just as positive feedback can create a loop of thought that leads to success,  negative feedback can have the opposite affect.

What message do we send? What feedback do we create when we cross the street to avoid someone? What message does it send when, to avoid speaking with someone, we won't even make eye contact? What collective message would you receive when person after person pretends to be looking the other direction so they don't have to look at you?

Yes, maybe money won't always help, so don't give them money when you don't feel you should. So, what can you do? Treat them as Christ would. Love them. Believe in their ability to become something better. Look at them with a smile that lets them know you care.

I believe Raymond appreciated the conversation because it was rare for a stranger to treat him like they cared, to treat him like he was worth the time and believed in him. I wondered when the last time was a stranger treated him this way. I have no proof of this, but my guess is it was several years ago in Las Vegas by an HVAC mechanic. I don't think he holds onto that old card because he really believes that job is still there; rather, it is a symbol of someone who cares, someone who believes in Raymond. I hope I will be better at treating others such that, even if they don't keep my card for years in their wallet, they keep the name of him whom I strive to represent in their hearts.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

What's in a title

Turn off the TV, put up lights
That is the title of the latest article in the Boulder City Review (http://bouldercityreview.com/opinion/turn-tv-put-lights).

One of the things I always assumed was that they guy they hired to write the article would also write the title. That is not the case. I realized this from the first article I wrote Woodbury made lasting impression: Beltway bears name of man who championed transportation issues. This may surprise you given what a beautiful title it was, but as wonderful as it was it was not mine. I of course did not mind this after all they only paid me to write articles, not titles.  But I wish they would have warned me about my most recent article (see above). The problem with this article is that people in Boulder City know where I live and I have zero Christmas lights up. While I felt like my lack of Christmas spirit did not conflict with my article as a whole it clearly is not in line with the message of its title.

Despite how hypocritical it's title made me look I still hope you enjoy it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Where will you be in five years?



A question we all should ask ourselves from time to time is, where will I be in 5 years?

This is a question I asked Drew and his answer has bothered me ever since.

Drew had grown up in the suburbs of Salt Lake City. He graduated high school from Bingham high, but long before he graduated he had many life lessons and challenges outside the classroom. At 14 his mother lost custody of him and his older and younger sister. His uncle had volunteered to take the children and for two years Drew lived there. However, not uncommon to 16 year olds, he found himself arguing with his uncle and ultimately in and out of foster care. If you enter "the system" of state foster care at age 9 your chances of being adopted are very low with less than 30% of adoptions being age 9 and older but by age 16 your chances are  more like, statistically impossible. Drew became no different than most kids and found himself bouncing from foster home to foster home. It was here that Drew first got comfortable on the streets often spending days on the streets between homes or "living with friends." Given his lack of consistency in his life, his accomplishment of receiving a diploma is very impressive.

At age 18 he found himself not only a graduate of high school but also of the foster care system. Society as a whole may be extending the time that our children can stay just that, children, with kids on our health care until age 26 and in our basements even longer. Foster care on the other hand has no such extension. There is however a youth shelter that goes from age 18 to 22. This is to help those who have aged out of foster care or their parent’s basement, a time to transition to "real life". Unfortunately it too often becomes a way for them to transition from school to the streets.

Drew appeared at first to beat the odds. By 22 he had found a decent job at Wingers as a busboy and waiter. He could afford his own room. Drew looked like he was on a path to a relatively, if not successful at least, normal life. He was tall and slender, clean cut with his only notable defect being a badly chipped front tooth. Naturally outgoing, a friend recommended that he quit his job at the restaurant and go into sales. The particular job was selling solar panel systems door to door. Drew didn't particularly care for sales but he had just gotten a new boss at Wingers. The boss was an ex-marine, whose authoritative leadership had taken all the fun out of work. Cautiously Drew decided to try sales on his day off. This proved to be a fateful decision because on his first day he made 3 sales. The commission from 3 sales a day was far more salary then Wingers provided. The next day he went into wingers and quite his job. Those were the last 3 sales he made. After days of selling with no success he found himself again on the streets.

"I still work from time to time. I have a friend who installs insulation and he hires me a few days a week to help. On the days I'm not installing insulation I do this." The “this” he refers to is what I found him doing, standing on a corner with a sign. He took panhandling seriously.

My first question to him was, "Are you hungry?"

I believe he assumed I had food to offer and said, "Yea, kind of."

"Want to come with me to lunch?" I asked.

"Thanks man, but I can't afford to lose this spot." I-80 and State Street must be prime real estate because he continued, "If I go with you someone else will take this spot, and at this time of day good spots are hard to come by."

"What's your goal? Are you just trying to get enough to eat?"

"I try to get enough for a cheap room."

"What if you don't get enough?"

"There's a shelter and if they're full there's a church downtown that lets us sleep on the pews."

When asked why he is homeless his answer is honest and humble, "Bad decisions. I've made really bad financial and other decisions that have led me here."

"Where do you see yourself in five years?"

"I hope the military. I got a 28 on my ASVAB but need a 31 to get in. I really need help in math since that is my worst score. I hope to take it again soon."

We chatted a bit more and I walked home. Of all the people I have interviewed Drew has bothered me the most. Why? Helping people with math is something I both enjoy doing and am very capable of. I have enjoyed helping youth in math for years and yet could there be a youth whose need was more and my potential impact greater? With a few days help I could possibly help him bump up his score, and he might be able to get off the streets. Instead of burdening our country he'd be serving it. But I was only in town for 1 more day and wasn't in a position to invite him into a home I myself was a guest in.

This was months ago and I still often think of Drew. Did he get the help he needed? Did someone do better than I and sacrifice for his future? Should I have taken a few days off work and tried to change his life? Would that have even helped? What if that was me who had been abandoned by my mother at 14? What if it was me, who tried to get the test score I needed but failed? Who would I turn to?

I am exceptionally grateful that I have been blessed with so many loving, self-sacrificing friends and family who would and do help in moments of crisis. Even when those moments are not so momentary. My prayer now is Drew finds such a friend and that in the future I may be such a friend to those who have not been so blessed.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Total Freedom

His mother must have foreseen this image of him when she named him. No one I had ever met had a name more perfectly suited to his appearance than Dusty sitting behind the gas station with a sign asking for food. Yuma, Arizona has a tendency to make us all a little that way. That is until we are able to get inside and clean up: something my friend clearly had not had occasion to do in some time.

His hair was unkempt and matched his half-grown beard. A bare chest look red and weathered, covered only lightly by a loose, military green, sleeveless vest fraying on the edges. A small beagle lay by his side and, in his hand, a sign that read, “Hungry, Anything Helps. God Bless.”

I was on my way to dinner and asked if he’d join me. We walked together and when we came to the front door he told his dog to stay and that he’d be back. He obediently lay down by the front door. “I can take him in because he’s a service animal but I don’t want to make trouble,” he said to me.
Small talk continues while we order and sit down. Dusty grew up in Georgia and, at the age of 16, was kicked out of his home and has been a “traveler” ever since. Once seated, it is clear that his sign was not in error: he was hungry.

“Do you enjoy life as a traveler?” I ask.

“You bet! It’s great! Go where you want, when you want. No one to boss you around. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” He says with confidence and pride.

Most recently his adventures have taken him to slab city. Slab city is mostly made up of snowbirds who park RV’s around the area. It gets its name from the concrete slabs that were left over from an abandoned WWII marine corps barracks of Camp Dunlap. “Travelers” make up a significant portion of the local population, but there are a few people who stay year around. Quite a feat given the summer temperatures reach over 120 degrees and there are no utilities. Many people who come to slab city want to be “off grid” in every aspect of their lives.

I am quick to assume that slab city is just the kind of place where Dusty would feel at home so am surprised when he says, “I didn’t really care for it. That place is total tweekerville.” My face must have shown my ignorance because he quickly explained, tweekerville, you know, everyone is on drugs. It’s just not my scene.”

Having little to say regarding tweekerville, I attempt to lighten the conversation by saying, “Well at least you didn’t have to come too far.” I have been by slab city several times and always considered it fairly close to Yuma. Now it was his turn to look shocked.

“It took me three days to get here!” It was clear my definition of what made something close or far had not taken into account the mode of transportation.

“So you mostly walk?”

“That and hitch rides. I used to have a car but that got impounded. I got the car when I was in Texas. A guy said he’d give it to me if I did $600 worth of work. But he let me have it early after only doing $300 so I took off. I got picked up in Flagstaff for improper right turn, but they added on, ‘driving without a license, insurance or registration.’”

This led to a 7 day stay in jail, and, by the way he said it, you could tell 7 days was a long stay for him.  “They said I could get the car out of impound for $600 but that is what I paid for it, so I said, ‘no way,’ and hitched a ride out of there.

“In what other towns have you been to jail?” I questioned.

“It would be faster to tell you what towns I haven’t been to jail in. They always take me to jail for stupid things like vagrancy, pan handling or public drunkenness.”

I notice, as he eats, he sets aside small pieces of meat for his dog.

“How long have you had your dog?” I ask.

“He was given to me last Halloween. He’s a great companion.”

Dusty finishes his meal and we head out of the building. Once outside I see the perfectly loyal companion sitting by the door. Dusty gives him his saved bits of meat.

I wished I had asked what happens to the dog while he is in jail. My guess is it waits outside or nearby for the few days it takes for his master to “pay his debt to society,” and happily joins him once freed.

I always learn a lot from the those I interview but the lessons I want to share, I learned, not from Dusty, but from his dog.
    
      1. Judging: To him his master is the greatest man alive. He doesn’t see him the way the world sees him. Rather he sees him as loving and giving. He sees the good. While many dogs seem to have this natural gift, I wonder if we could choose to cultivate it in ourselves.

2. Loyalty. The dog’s loyalty was incredible to me, especially when contrasted to his owner. Whereas Dusty would, “take off” or “go where he wanted, when he wanted.” His dog would faithfully wait, only move when told, and go wherever his master told him to go.

 As positive as Dusty spoke of his “total freedom” lifestyle, I can’t help but wonder if the dog’s loyalty and servitude was a more fulfilling experience.



Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Boulder Highlands Fact Check

I'm never shy about sharing my opinion, so am pleased to share my first opinion piece in the Boulder City Review.

http://bouldercityreview.com/opinion/thoughtful-approach-growth-best-way-go
Let me know what you think. And if your in Boulder City post your thoughts about our growth ordinance.




Friday, October 28, 2016

Mom, Are you Homeless?


Mom, are you homeless?

1997 was a very difficult year for Stephanie. She had become a single mother upon the death of her husband and was left to raise three children, ages 9, 14, and 20. Despite her loss of a deep love, a love deep enough that she wears her wedding ring to this day, she hung on and held her little family together. Now, however, with her children 28, 33, and 39 all moved out and raising kids of their own, she has lost the strength to keep up. The necessity of keeping a roof over her children’s head helped her find a way but that’s changed. “Being alone now, it is just easier to find yourself on the streets.”

I met Stephanie on the corner with a sign asking for assistance. “I do have a job,” she said, clearly embarrassed in her current state. “It just gets slow at the convention center during the summer and I need some help to get by.” It becomes clear that slow is a kind way to say during the summer she has no work. Therefore, during this slow time, she often finds herself “between homes.”

“I have tried other jobs, but they always want me to put them first and I don’t want to give up my position at the convention center. After all, if I get 500 hours and pass my test, my salary goes up to $20 an hour. No one else will give me that kind of money.”

After mentioning her job, she notes, “The biggest fear I had when I started pan handling was that someone from work would recognize me. I even thought about getting a wig and sunglasses but didn’t feel that would be honest.”

“Do your children know you’re out here?” I ask.

“No way.”

“What would they do, if they knew?”

“They would want to help. Have me move in with them or something, but I don’t want to be a burden. They have their own children to raise.”

A lady stops, even though the light is green, and hands Stephanie a box with half a pizza. Stephanie grabs it and tries to thank the lady as the car quickly takes off in response to those honking behind.

“I am not proud of this, but am grateful that people are so kind to me. They often stop like this and get me food or a few dollars.”

“Where do you stay at night?”

“There is a place a few blocks away that is only $44 a night. Sometimes I get enough. I also have friends who will let me stay with them and shower if I have to go to work or have a job interview.”

I thank her for talking and begin to head back. As I walk, I think of this widow, mother of 3, grandmother of 8, and homeless women. Everyone wants so much for their children. We would do anything for them. A clear example is a widow mother, who in personal shame begs on a street, rather than accept a warm home to avoid inconveniencing her children.

But what of those who would do anything for us: our parents? How well do we reciprocate? I thought of her children. Do you think they know? Some of the signs must be obvious.  Do they notice that she only visits them; that she never talks about her home; that she shows up clearly having not bathed? Or are they so caught up in the business of the world that they don’t even notice? Or perhaps they notice but don’t have the courage to ask, “Mom, are you homeless?” Or maybe they know, but like so many, are not sure what to do.

I asked her, before I left, if I could take a photo for my blog.

“What if my kids see it?”

I assured her my blog was not that well-read, so she agreed.

I was sincere when I told her I doubted her children would see. But I ask all of you who do. Where is the woman who raised you: the woman who, when the world pushed on her, held up, not only her share, but yours, so that you could enjoy the safety, security and love of childhood? Are we caring for them the way they cared for us? Most are not in need of a roof over their head, but they may need a phone call or a visit. Or maybe they need to feel needed: that there are people out there who still need their love and support, perhaps just as much as the day they lost their father.


To all the Stephanies of the world, especially the one who, when times were tough, kept a roof over my head physically, emotionally and in every other way, I say, “Thank you, and I love you.” 


Saturday, October 22, 2016

I'm A Writer

It was my junior year in high school. Six weeks previous to this experience we had all just taken an aptitude test. Now we were being shuffled, one by one, into a councilors office to discuss our plans for the future based on the results of the testing.

I went in and a kind women, whom I didn't recall ever seeing before, asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. That question was easy. My dad was a mechanical engineer, and for as long as I could remember, I wanted to be one too. "Mechanical engineer," I said with pride.

We are lucky she didn't ask me what a mechanical engineer did because I had no clue. She just said, "great, your tests results line up perfectly with a future as an engineer. Now if you had said writer, we would have had a problem."

Society always says there is power in building people up and telling them they can do anything. I almost wonder if, at times, there is more power in telling people they can't do something. Since that moment in that councilors office, I have had some desire to become a writer. Not enough to change my engineering career path, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I wanted to be able to walk in that office and say, "I'm a writer." Of course, that wouldn't do much good since she probably hasn't been sitting in there for the last 16 years. And I have the sneaky suspicion this moment had more impact on me than her, so she may not recall the conversation.

Well today, in a small way, is that day. I was published in a small town paper. I know not a huge deal, but baby steps. Here is the link:

http://bouldercityreview.com/community/woodbury-made-lasting-impression-beltway-bears-name-man-who-championed-transportation

Hope you enjoy.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Barriers


The underpass pathway

I walk away from my hotel towards the underpass. The underpass is literally only 500 feet from the hotel but large fencing connects the hotel to other buildings on that side so I am forced to take a long walk around. Once I arrive at the underpass I can see why the fence was installed. The 3 ft. walkway that is divided from traffic with a large concrete barrier on one side, adjacent to a shotcreted side slope on the other, is so full of garbage that only a small foot path on one side remains clear. Even that, at times, disappears, leaving you to kick at the waste. The top layer of trash is discernible enough: circle K cups, beer cans, used cardboard pandering signs and abandoned clothing, but below is a blackened, half decayed layer of garbage that has become unrecognizable in its current state. Hotel owners and high rise landlords have built the fence to make travel through their lot an inconvenience so as to keep the "filth” literally and figuratively out of their territory. It becomes one of the millions of barriers we “haves” construct so as not to be reminded of the world of the “have nots” that surrounds us.

I push the button to notify the street that passage is requested. The length of time that I sit waiting as each line of cars is ushered before me clearly tells me that in this intersection I, like all pedestrians, are unwanted guests. The hand signals me to enter just as a right turning car rushes to beat me, I enter hoping that the car behind won’t follow his lead. I’m not even half way across the 8 lane road when the clock starts ticking down, warning me that my time is soon up. I pick up the pace but quickly realize my quick walk will prove insufficient and I better turn to a jog to beat the countdown. I dash. With half a second to spare I cross the curbing and cars quickly fill the void I have left. No one cheers my victory.


A girl sits with her back to me and I approach. Beats brand headphones are in her ear, and in her hands she holds two items: a cardboard sign with a typical pandering message, and a bible track just handed to her by one of the passing cars.  

“Can I speak to you for a minute?” I rather shyly ask. The headphones clearly do their job. I approach closer and repeat my request.

She smiles and the headphones come out. “Can I speak with you?” 

She agrees and turns and turns to face me.

She wears a pink blouse, opened too far from the top, and accentuated enough from below to be intentionally indecent. Her face at first appears old but once you look closely, she appears younger than one would guess. Most of her front teeth are missing, and her nose is crooked with a scar down the middle, likely recently broken.

I mention that I have no cash but would just like to talk. She seems open to the idea and says, “sometimes advise is better than money.” I again feel bad, given I have no more advice than I do cash. Her name is Cassidy. She came to Phoenix from Illinois on her 21st birthday. She has been homeless for 4 months after her last boyfriend kicked her out of his home. 

“Is this your first time homeless?”

“Oh, no,” is her quick response, “I have been homeless on and off my entire life. I’m 48 now.” She goes on to explain that when it comes to work she has done everything out there: waitress, housekeeping, and even construction. She turns as a nameless stranger's hand comes out of a window with a few dollars. As more drivers offer her funds, I begin to feel awkward just watching and move on.

It’s getting dark now and across the street I see another woman with a sign. She is barely noticeable from the street, being set back behind a small building that houses electrical breakers and other equipment for the lights. I cross as she begins to put away her sign into her small black backpack.

“Can I speak to you for a minute?” I ask.

“For a minute, I’m just leaving,” she says, clearly leery of me. Marilyn is her name. She is more shy in every way than Cassidy and clearly not as comfortable speaking to me. She wears a zip up hoody that is zipped up all the way, that she clings to as much as the smell of smoke clings to it. She came to Phoenix in 2007 from Indiana to escape an abusive, 13-year marriage. “Phoenix seemed far enough away,” she says. “Plus I had a friend here. When I first came, I had a job in the insurance industry. I lost it in 2011.”

But despite the job loss, she assures me that is not why she is on the streets. “I let a friend live with me and they got me evicted. That is what I get for helping,” she says with clear, deep bitterness in her voice. I try to kindly ask how her friend got her evicted, but she avoids details. She has been on the streets for the past 5 months. When asked if she has ever been homeless before the answer is a simple, “no.”

“So, do you just try to get enough to get a place to stay each night?” I continue.

“Well I try, but that didn’t work out so good today; nobody wants to help.”

“Where do you stay?”

“Some nights I stay at a shelter, but you have to wait in line for a long time and then half the time they don’t have room anyways. Once you get in, people inside rob you. Usually it’s better to stay at a park.”

“Do police bother you at the parks?”

“No, they leave you alone.”

“What could society do to help someone like you?”

This question comes with a long pause. It’s something she clearly hasn’t thought about or at least not directly. Hard to be a big picture thinker what you aren’t sure where your next meal is coming from.
Rather than directly answering, she puts forward what she has done to get society’s help. “I have applied for section 8 housing, and if I get that, I’d have enough time to clean up and get a job again.”

“Do you know how long the wait is?”

“They don’t say.”

She grabs her bike as a sign she is done talking and ready to move on. I ask if I can get a picture of her. Again she pauses, and clearly embarrassed she says, I’d rather you didn’t. She rides off, I presume towards a park for the night. I walk back across the 8 lane road, back through the path of garbage. I begin to walk around the fence that connects the hotel to the large high rise when I notice two of the bars are bent just enough to allow a person of my size to slip back into his side of the world.

A picture I took the next morning of the bent fence that allowed my access back to the hotel.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Are These Your Shoes?

Are these your shoes?

Barely used 10 ½ black Adidas with silver striping? Perhaps you left them sitting out on a bench at your local locker room, carelessly left them on your front porch so no scuffs got on your carpet, or maybe took them off so you could let loose on the play place at McDonalds.  I met them sitting on top of a black roller bag. You know, the type that an executive would wheel through the airport as he rushed onto a plane. However, the style and age of the luggage was not complimentary to its owner but rather in contrast. It appeared to me as I approached this frail body in a ragged blazer topped by a bright blue Buffalo Bills cap at the Denver Union Train Station that its owner had seen much more mileage than his luggage or the shoes that sat on them.

“Are you coming or going?” I asked.

“Neither, I live here.” After a pause he anticipated my next question, about the bag. “I’m homeless.”
Jack has been on the streets in Denver for 15 of his 55 years. When asked what led to his homelessness he responds, “I came home early from work one day and found my wife in bed with my father.” It is unclear how this left him homeless but it is said in such a way as to not invite follow up questions.

It doesn’t take long for him to steer the conversation and he asks, “What size shoe do you wear?” The answer is not 10 ½ but it’s close enough. “Do you want to buy these?”

“Where did you get them?”

“You want the truth?” I nod. “I found them in a dumpster. Probably a mad girlfriend throwing her ex’s stuff out.”

I pass.

We talk back and forth. Jack says the doctors tell him he has lymphoma. This has led to rapid weight loss and he produces a picture of himself with considerably more muscle, bone structure and everything else accept for hair. The transformation has taken him from Mr. Clean to Mr. Burns.
“The health care is good though,” he explains. “If I need a doctor they let me see one and I can get any prescription I need filled for two bucks.”

Conversation continues as we head down into the bus station. At the bottom we approach a group huddled together on the floor talking and laughing. “This is Sunshine, Stella, Hollywood, and Daniel. The dog’s named Lucy.” Pointing to each member of the group and ending with the Pitbull sitting next to Sunshine. Sunshine is the first to accept the stranger or at least enough to talk. She’s from Tennessee and came to Colorado a few months ago.

“Why Colorado?” I ask.

“I love the mountains…and the lifestyle. It seems like everyone in Colorado lives a clean, healthy life style and I admire that.”

“You came for the legal pot.” Stella has joined in.

“That too.” Sunshine says laughing.

“What bus are you getting on?” A security guard has approached the group and is anxious for them to move on.  He continues his questioning to each one careful to try to catch them in a lie. “That doesn’t stop hear any more tonight,” or “that bus just left why didn’t you get on.” He pushes each person except myself, he doesn’t seem willing to ask or even make eye contact with me. After his pushing seems unable to make any in the group stand he simply says, “well you better be on the next bus or you’ll have to leave.” He walks away and the group visibly relaxes.

“Do you guys stay at a local shelter?”

“Not during the summer. It’s too nice outside. Plus, the shelter won’t let me stay with Lucy.”
“So do you usually just try to get enough to eat?”

“That and a shower. There’s a truck stop that will let us shower for $12 and wash some of our clothes.”

I turn again to Jack and ask, “So are you going to stay on the streets? Where are you going to be in five years?”

Jack looks at me, the smile gone, “five years? I’ll be gone in two months. Five years, I’ll be in heaven and I’m okay with that.”

Shortly after this exchange I have to leave and am half way out of the bus station when the shoes come to my mind. I turn around.

“Jack” I call out as I approach. “Maybe I will take those shoes.”

He smiles as I hand him some cash and he hands me the shoes.“God made you come back didn’t he?”

I think momentarily. “Yea, I suppose so.”

So, are they your shoes? If so and you are in the need of a new pair, I know a great place to pick some up. The atmosphere is like no other store I’ve ever been in and the sales staff know how to treat you. After all, it’s where I bought my favorite pair of shoes.

Sunshine, Stella, Lucy and Me.

Nathaniel