Driving to the Day Center in Grand Junction, I wondered how different the place might feel on my first day back after seven months away.
Although there are superficial similarities with Peace House Community in Minneapolis, the Day Center bustles with more activity and a slightly harder-edged group of people. More folks here are living rough, in their vehicles or in shelters.
At Peace House, we tend to serve those who have grabbed at least one rung on the ladder of stability. Here, a higher proportion of folks are dealing with addiction, mental illness or prolonged periods of unemployment. One man said today a potential employer asked for his resume and he didn't have one; he'd last worked in 2003.
While the Day Center, like Peace House, is an oasis compared to the streets, the energy here is more elevated and so is the volume. Washers and driers run over conversations and a guitar gets passed around to different hands that evoke different sounds. A woman holds it in her lap and plays dobro-style. Her singing voice is clear and her notes bend with a bluesy sophistication, but she speaks in a staccato stream-of-consciousness rippled with paranoia.
Today, a local architect is observing. He's prominent locally and has donated a great deal of time and resources to the design of low-income and transitional housing here. Apparently an upgrade and expansion of the Day Center is being considered.
His presence is one more sign of the progress this community has made in expanding housing options for the poor. At the same time, his questions and the hubbub around us signify how complex and entrenched are the issues related to homelessness.
Today, S.O. came in. I met him three years ago when he came to the Day Center and refused to give his Social Security number, information we request of all first-timers. He did come back another time and I got to know his story, which included a stint writing for a newspaper years ago.
He has a quiet, avoidant manner and is always surprised that I remember his name. Being treated as a consequential individual is not an everyday experience, but maybe his surprise is also related to the head injuries he's suffered. They affect his memory and concentration.
S.O. first came to the valley in 2002 and became a resident when he lost his drivers license to a DUI.
He told me a story about winching junked cars out of the river and cutting them into two-foot long pieces he and a friend could sell at the scrap yard. He found work building storage units and even an upscale residence. He's an apprentice-trained journeyman carpenter, but he hasn't worked much since the recession. He lives in his mini-van.
He turns sixty this month and both his shoulders are shot. With the help of a disability lawyer who's in town a couple days a week, he's going through the process of qualifying for disability benefits. The process is drawn out purposely, it seems, to discourage applicants and reward only the persistent, despite the reality that a lack of persistence is a common symptom of disability.
He'd had a companion for a while, but they both had scrapes with the law and he lost track of her. A while back he was in McDonald's charging his phone and stepped out for cigarette. While he was outside, a clean-cut, college-looking kid went in the door and came running out with S.O.'s phone. All his contacts are now missing and people don't know how to reach him.
It's like losing part of yourself, he said.
Theft is a constant issue. He had two bikes stolen last year and a third crushed by a truck backing out of a parking place as he walked by. The Salvation Army gave him a bike for bell ringing this Holiday season and within days, someone stripped the brakes off it.
I'm summarizing here. His transportation travails are actually more maddening than this, but he seems to accept them.
Still, I can see the wear and worry in his eyes when we talk and when, an hour later, he walks past me without seeming to know me.