If you've just joined us, this is a reminder that in the winter I volunteer for the Catholic Outreach Day Center serving an adult homeless population in Grand Junction, Colorado. Today was my first time back in nearly seven months.
As with my accounts from the preschool in Minnesota, most of the names here are made up—unless I'm writing about someone whose story has already made the newspaper.
Jose came in late and took his accustomed seat against the wall. He often wears a wool cap and dark glasses which along with his beard obscure most of his face. It's hard to know whether he's talking to himself or is actually performing a bit and expecting to be heard. Like others of our guests he can shift abruptly from monologue to dialogue, not making much sense in either mode.
Today he was inventorying tools in one of his packs with a running commentary that wouldn't seem strange if he kept it inside his head. He spoke to a hammer, a screw driver and a few other tools as if Stanley were their first name, not their brand. A box cutter, a can opener, a stainless steel hip flask, a drill bit, a short length of chain that he kinked and unkinked.* Then, the prize—a shiny metal motorcycle mirror with the top edge ragged as the flames of hell.
One of the bikers in the place was ready to buy it on the spot.
All the tools, it turns out, were road kill that Jose found as he rode his bike around the city.
I wrote about Val during my last tour out here. He was hit by a car when jaywalking and spent five months in hospital care recuperating from a broken femur, pelvis, vertebrae, punctured lung, etc. Once he got off the ventilator, he was sent to the VA for physical therapy, but not before collecting an $88 ticket for jaywalking.
"I look both ways when I cross the street now," he said.
Given the extent of his injuries and his age, he was lucky to pull through, but today he looked like his old self. He told me though, some things have changed.
"I appreciate life a lot a more, every day. I don't do meth any more, don't shoot up, I do smoke pot, but I'm taking good care of myself now."
So far, so good.
I spoke with a guest who just recently started coming in. He rents a living room in a house a block away for $100 a month. The house is owned by a man undergoing chemo who mostly stays in his bedroom watching television. The other renter has a job, so he's not around during the day.
A-C has a range of physical ailments and some mental issues that have made it hard for him to stay employed. He lost a job at Wendy's because he couldn't keep up with the pace. A free-lance landscaping business fell apart because he didn't have a car and had to push his equipment around the city for jobs. He had 13 clients, but they were spread too far apart, and his back pain took him down. He works a few hours helping a mover when he can.
He has a hearing coming up to see if he qualifies for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The extra support may help him afford the transportation he needs to restart his landscaping business.
He's positive and wants to work but it's hard to find the right combination of factors.
He's not the only one here who's an "undocumented worker," doing cash jobs, hanging on to some supplemental benefits and living in a substandard housing situation.
"Homeless" doesn't really describe these guys, and neither does "vagrant." They've been living on the margins of the community for years, often with its help. Much of what we do here is provide a place that keeps them from falling any farther.
* It did get my attention when the hammer came out, since hammers and hatchets are sometimes used as weapons when disputes flare up. I kept watch over the box cutter and hip flask, too, but he simply took each item from one bag, commented on it, and then put it in his other pack.