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Chicanery Row

After his girlfriend left and he had a nervous breakdown, quit his teaching job and stopped taking his medication, John the Depressed Guy lived in "the hatchback hotel."

For six months he slept in the back of his 1985 Honda Accord, making a home in RV lots, city parks, roadsides, wherever. He drank himself into a whiskey-flavored oblivion, stayed up for days, drove from city to city and teetered at the edge of no return.

"The only consistent thing I had in my life at that time was my dog," he says. "She was with me through it all."

John the Depressed Guy, which is the name he sometimes uses, is a fairly typical middle-class, blond, blue-eyed man from Wheat Ridge. He graduated from college, got a good job in Southern California, made decent money, had friends.

But he also suffers from a severe form of manic depression. As long as he keeps his stress to a minimum and takes his pills, he can work, pay the bills and get around like everyone else. If he doesn't, he wanders through a haze of mood swings, delusions and hopelessness.

"It's hard to explain," he says. "It can really get weird."
Three years ago, with the help of family and friends, he moved into Sheridan trailer park in northwest Denver. There, in a twenty-year-old trailer with a Winnie the Pooh rug in the living room and an assortment of doggy chew toys on the couch, he has made something of a stable life.

Not that Sheridan is perfect, he says. There's constant noise, dust and pollution from a nearby boulevard, highway intersection and shopping center. But it is more comfortable than his old Honda. And to be completely honest, his homely little trailer, which he owns, and the patch of ground he rents each month are the only things keeping him from sliding back onto the streets.

That's something most people probably don't realize, John the Depressed Guy says. Mobile-home parks are among the last refuges for the poor. Without them, hundreds of people would tumble headlong into the dirty and dangerous world of street corners, homeless shelters and low-rent motels where he also lived off and on for ten years.

"This really is the cut-off point," he says. "Here you have a door you can open up and walk into, a dining room where you can eat dinner and a place where you can stretch out your legs and watch TV. You don't have to think about storing food and getting dirt in your socks. This really is the last bastion for a lot of people. If we lose this, we lose the simple, basic physical comforts a civilized person takes for granted."

And, in their own way, mobile-home parks have a certain charm. Sheridan is its own little village of free spirits, eccentrics, oddballs and outcasts, complete with tidy-lawn contests, potluck dinners and chocolate-pie recipes in the monthly newsletter. There's the World War II vet who was shot in the head. The Mexican family who snuck across the Rio Grande on the backs of smugglers. The talkaholic with Ronald Reagan hair. The Southern woman who bristles at the mention of her Dixie roots. "I ain't from no South," she says. "I'm from Missouri."

"The people who live here are mostly retired and disabled," John the Depressed Guy says. "Some are poor just because of stupidity. We realize society looks down on us, so we stick together and keep each other's spirits up by saying things like 'There, there. You're a good person.' When you're a kid, no one says, 'When I grow up, I want to live in a trailer park.' But there are people here with tremendous hearts who have just fallen through the cracks. Fine characters. The kind only John Steinbeck could appreciate."

Last November, a tremor rumbled through that quirky little world. Sheridan tenants got a letter from management. The park, and some twelve others in Colorado, had just been bought by a company called Affordable Residential Communities. ARC, which also owns parks in Texas, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Idaho, Missouri, Kansas, Florida and Illinois, had a simple mission: "To have the best-run community in town."

But as tenants would soon find out, ARC's way of doing that was hiking the rents by as much as 30 percent and charging for sewage service and trash collection, which had until then been provided free.

To John the Depressed Guy, who lives off $800 in federal housing assistance and a part-time job, that hike translates into $60 per month, or a total monthly rent of $375. Add in sewer and trash service and he'll probably pay more than $400.

That might not seem like much to the yuppies living in Cherry Creek or Washington Park, he says, but at Sheridan, where one elderly woman scrapes by on $500 a month, it's devastating.

"People drive by here in their new cars and don't have any idea about this place," he says. "I wonder how they would react if their rent was raised by 30 percent. They wouldn't tolerate it. Not only would they get angry, but they'd have the skills and the resources to fight it and push it down. Here, we can't. We can't hire an attorney. We have to spend our money buying food."

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