The Denver Diaries: Chapter 3 – September through October 2013
Despite my financial situation, I was loving Denver, and it had begun to feel like it might one day be a real home. This changed, however, as the last of my money dissipated paying for living expenses and shelter at the hostel. But there was hope, as I heard back from one of the jobs which I had applied for, working at a non-profit organization where I would be helping to prevent sexual assault and offer support to people who had survived it. As it was, this was an issue close to my heart, and I felt that with my own experiences and understanding of human nature that maybe I could make a real difference in the local community. To my great surprise, not only did I get an interview for the job, but I was also offered a position almost immediately. After weeks of not hearing anything back from the places I had applied to, I finally seemed to have caught a lucky break… or so I thought. As it turned out, I was not going to be making the kind of direct changes in the community I had hoped I would be given the opportunity to, but rather I would be “canvassing” in the metro Denver area, mostly in the suburbs, to raise funds and awareness for various programs to aid those whose lives had been impacted by sexual assault. The cause was close to my heart, but the method (going door to door, asking for financial support for the organization and handing out flyers) was not something to which I was suited for. Having most of my work experience in the library back in Maine, I was accustomed to being behind a counter and people coming to me with their needs and then assisting them, but here I was a fish out of water, in a new city where I couldn’t get my bearings, and trying to approach total strangers and essentially ask for their financial assistance on a sensitive subject that was a deterrent for many. After the first few days of training made it clear that this job required a more buoyant and vivacious personality than myself, I knew that I didn’t handle the rejection well, I was too soft-spoken, and not assertive or persistent enough. My co-workers were all a delight, very amiable and charming, but I didn’t feel that I quite fit in with these young people who were so full of optimism. During work, as I went from one door to another, one street to another, I was sworn at (an old man told me to “…get the fuck off my lawn!”), threatened (an old woman threatened to sic her dog on me and warned that “…he has very sharp teeth”), and treated with ridicule (a man told me, “What do I care about rape? The government has us all bent over and fucking us up the ass. This isn’t my problem.”). After six days of training, by which time I was supposed to raise my nightly quota at least twice consecutively, and having not raised it at all, I was let go from the job.
I had spent all of my money staying at the hostel so that I could store my belongings and shower and be presentable at work. And this meant that I had not had money for food, so I was starving, and this also affected me emotionally. I became increasingly depressed, discouraged with myself, and irritable. Before being hired, I had been eating sporadically, trying to save money so I wouldn’t be out on the street, but then when I was hired, I knew that in order to keep my job, especially since it was dealing with the public and being a representative of an organization, I needed to be presentable. I couldn’t be looking like someone who slept in an alleyway. I went five days straight without eating while I was working, which I am certain was detrimental to my efforts on the job, but I didn’t really have anyone I could turn to for help. Fortunately, my cousin Char wired me some money so I wouldn’t starve, and I bought enough groceries to sustain me through the next couple weeks. When I lost the job, I knew I was in serious trouble, because since I was on commission, the amount I made per hour was about $5, not including the amount taken out for tax deductions. Having worked about a 40 hour week, my take home pay was less than $200, and I had to choose between staying at the hostel or saving that money for food. I put aside some of the money, so I would be able to stay at the hostel during inclement weather, and then put the rest of it aside to pay for groceries. I was now one of the homeless of Denver, Colorado. And what was worse was that I had become anorexic.
It was October, the temperatures had begun to drop dramatically, there was occasional snow showers, and I found myself sleeping in alleyways under the overhangs of fire escapes, or in churchyards concealed by shrubs, or under bridges. Anywhere that I could find at least partial shelter from the elements and where I wouldn’t be harassed by other homeless people looking for drugs or alcohol, things they could steal, or where the police would see me. I learned a lot from the six weeks I ended up living on the streets. I learned a lot about Denver, about its homeless population, about how the police treat the homeless, and about the Urban Camping Ban, a local ordinance which makes it a crime for the homeless to be caught sleeping in public. I found out where I could go to take a shower, where I could do laundry for free, where I could receive my mail, and where I could go to get a free breakfast on Sunday mornings. I also came to realize how impractical it was to have a backpack, a bag of laundry, and a shoulder bag, altogether weighing in at about a hundred pounds (I myself only weighed about forty pounds more than that), to carry with me at all times when I myself was getting thinner and thinner and losing muscle mass due to catabolysis.
There are so many things that we take for granted, so many things that we don’t realize are luxuries that can be swiftly taken away by a change in luck or finances. One might think that being indigent means you’re a bum, that you’re lazy and don’t give any effort, that you just leech off the system. This is not the case at all. Being homeless is anything but easy. Every aspect of living without shelter and without utilities is a challenge. Being homeless is a test of the will.
The first challenge you face is where to find food and how to prepare food when you don’t have your own kitchen. I had food money from my cousin, so I knew I wasn’t in as bad shape there as I could be, but it would only last for a short while. I needed to sign up for food stamps, which I was hesitant to do, as I’m reluctant to accept aid from the government which is funded by taxation when I don’t have the means to pay taxes myself. I don’t like to rely on supplements when I feel I’m not contributing myself. But I relented out of necessity, knowing that one day, I would be able to contribute and pay society back in some way. So, I signed up for food stamps, and started receiving benefits. Now, this is not a complaint, but rather an observation. One cannot survive off the amount you receive in food stamps alone when you are homeless. The reason being that you have to buy food that you can carry around with you at all times and you’re limited as to what foods you can get because most likely you don’t have a way to cook. So, you end up buying pre-made foods, convenient foods, and you buy them at whatever stores are closest, not where food is the most inexpensive. Because of this, you end up spending more, and running out of food stamps benefits long before you receive your next monthly amount. This is where and when most people turn to soup kitchens, food pantries, and churches that offer hot meals once a week. This, however, wasn’t really an option for me since I’m both a vegetarian and a person with numerous food allergies. There were not many places for me to eat.
The second challenge is where do you rest and sleep. Well, in some towns and cities, there are plenty of places you can go to find a secluded area to sleep and recuperate from carrying all your possessions around with you in whatever weather there happens to be. In Denver, there are not many options available to men, though, fortunately there are many places you can stay if you are a woman or have children. I only spent three nights at the shelter. There are a number of reasons why. The first reason is the weather. When it’s between 15 and 30 degrees outside, damp, and snowy, you have to stay warm. One of the best ways to stay warm is to keep moving, but you cannot maintain constant motion and just walk for days on end, especially not if you are running low on food and energy and you have a lot to carry with you. The second reason is fatigue. Eventually you find yourself exhausted and you cannot stop wherever your energy level has depleted and just sleep there. Unless you want to be arrested. You have to go somewhere designated for the homeless or to somewhere where your presence will go undetected. The third reason is that there are sometimes dangers on the street that you need to avoid. Many homeless people live a rough existence. Many have been attacked, robbed, raped, or witnessed and experienced things that harden them both inside and out. The key to surviving is knowing your limitations and adapting to your environment.
The third challenge is hygiene. When you are on the street, this one thing is of so much importance, not only in trying to keep yourself clean and healthy, to avoid infections, cavities, and other health problems, but also in trying to make money. Whether you are intending to look for employment or whether you just plan to beg for money and food on the corners, being at least somewhat presentable is important. Generally speaking, employers don’t want to hire someone who is hasn’t bathed, has bad breath, isn’t groomed, is wearing dirty clothes, or who is visibly unhealthy. The same goes for begging. People don’t want to hand over their money to a beggar as it is, but especially not one that looks like he is circling the drain. What’s more, your appearance and how you carry yourself also carries a significance in how people perceive you, and whether they find you trustworthy, untrustworthy, or even a threat. So, it is absolutely essential that you can find places where you can bathe or shower, go to the bathroom, brush your teeth, launder clothes, and change. Most shelters offer some of these amenities, but not all, and here in the city, many restaurants only offer their restrooms to paying customers. You have to know where you can go. I cannot emphasize this enough. It’s horrible being homeless. It’s detrimental to your self-esteem. And it’s even worse when you find yourself in the awkward and humiliating position of having to relieve your bodily functions outside, knowing that a traffic camera or security camera may be catching you on video or that someone somewhere may be watching.
These are but three essential challenges that you are forced to confront when you’re living life as an indigent. There are many others. So many, many things that we take for granted because in our privileged lives we grow accustomed to them. For me, aside from those three things, perhaps the most difficult thing to adjust to was just not having privacy or any sense of comfort and security. Even when you can find a places to sit down, lay down, rest, or sleep, you cannot ever let your guard down. You have to be alert at all times or your belongings will be stolen, you will be assaulted, or you will be arrested. I couldn’t believe how hard this was to adapt to. I sometimes found myself literally sleeping with one eye open. My head would shoot up and I’d become fully alert the second I heard footsteps within a fifty foot radius. Every helicopter, plane, or roll of thunder interrupted my sleep. Every car horn or car alarm, emergency siren, or distant shouting became a cause to not just wake up, but to gather my senses and make sure that I could move myself and all my belongings should the situation necessitate it. It was difficult to get more than two consecutive hours of sleep without interruption. I also found that another thing that one doesn’t really think about when you think of homelessness, but which was very hard for me to deal with, is your libido. Being poor, being unhealthy, and being on the street doesn’t just cause your sex drive to disappear. But what do you do when you are alone, on the street, and have no privacy? You certainly can’t have sex or masturbate in public and most shelters have very specific rules about those kinds of things and will ban you if you violate those rules. For me, anyway, I never really figured out how people handle that aspect of life on the streets, and so that constant, gnawing urge for sexual gratification went unheeded, which only made me more restless and it was harder to sleep. As it turns out, a certain amount of pleasure is not only enjoyable, but it is actually required for your own well-being and mind-body balance.
All of these things take their toll. It’s no wonder that so many indigents have emotional or mental problems. Even if they found themselves on the streets without any pre-existing disorders, it’s very easy to understand how they would develop them over time. The constant hunger, fatigue, sexual repression, loneliness, anxiety, paranoia, insomnia, depression, and the gradual decline in your own sense of self-worth. These things are all so dehumanizing. And that’s just what is going on in your own head and doesn’t even take into account the kind of treatment you receive from others based on how they perceive you. There are so many threats that you have to be wary of, from the police arresting you to being assaulted, from theft to being deceived or framed for a crime, from being drugged to being raped. Everyone one the streets is at risk. No one is really safe. Not safe from others and not safe from themselves. You have to seek sanctuary, either in a physical place like a public library, a church, or a park, or emotionally/spiritually in yourself. You are a refugee, and your survival depends on having refuge, or a fugue, to which you can temporarily escape the physical and mental stress and hardship that is your daily existence. I’ve never used drugs, but I can understand why many people resort to drug use to insulate themselves and escape their present realities. For many, what other options do they have? I sought out my sanctuary, my refuge, my escape, in the form of photography and reading. Taking photographs helped to me to capture in images what I was seeing, what I was experiencing, both the degrading ugliness and those all too few moments of astonishing beauty. Reading enriched my mind and transported me to other places. It gave me a chance to delve into research for my writing and to find a retreat from my own life for a few hours here and there. The library became a haven for both of these reasons, as I could take out books, but also use the public computers to access the internet, to share photos with friends, to research and write my essays, and to keep in contact with family.
It’s not an uncommon sight in Denver to see a homeless person asleep on a park bench or passed out on the lawn in front of some public building or begging for money on the street corner. Most people would see them and walk away or lower their heads to avoid acknowledging them at all. And why? Because there are too many homeless people in the city for any one individual to help and it creates a feeling of helplessness and guilt. Nobody wants to feel that they aren’t contributing to society, regardless of whether they are affluent or impoverished, and so the natural defense mechanism of the ego is denial. If you don’t acknowledge the existence of the poor, the hungry, and the homeless, then they cease to exist in your day-to-day life. When you push someone outside of the periphery of your vision, then you essentially put them out of sight and out of mind, enabling you to go about your business unaffected. No guilt. The problem for me is that I cannot do this. Here I was on the streets, homeless, starving, and becoming unhealthy, and yet I would look around me at the shelters and at the people I was encountering on the streets, and I saw that many were in much more dire situations than myself. Yes, my situation sucked, but there are people on the streets with diseases and serious mental health issues and drug addictions. I lost track of how many people I encountered with severe autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or some other manner of debilitating mental health problems that would prevent them from finding stability and turning their lives around. Someone needed to help these people, to give them support, and to offer them a sign of hope that they could aspire to be more than their current circumstances allowed for. I knew that my own circumstances were temporary. That things would eventually improve because I wouldn’t give up because I had strong survival instincts. But surviving isn’t enough. I wanted to help others who were struggling, too, and I was fortunate because I found a way to do this.
It was late October when I came across Saint Paul’s United Methodist and Inter-Spiritual Community and discovered that they offered breakfasts to the homeless every Sunday, despite having limited funds, a small congregation of attendees, and only about half a dozen regular volunteers to keep their breakfast program going. This was where I needed to be. This was where I could start to make a difference.
To be continued…