If the mountains to the West are the first thing that Denver's visitors notice, the second are all the people standing on corners holding signs? While panhandlers, as they're commonly known, are sheltered by the First Amendment, Denver' sign-fliers are also prohibited from using profanity or being aggressive, and they cannot come too close to ATM's, community toilets, buses, outdoor patios or other public spaces. Many consider these people the face of Denver's homeless -- but who are they, really?
To answer that question, Westword is launching a regular series profiling the people behind the signs. Read our first entry below.
Location: Yosemite and Colfax
Steve Meyer's heart is broken. In February, he replaced his old, orange sign with this new version, fashioned from the torn upper half of a heart-shaped candy box and scribbled with his story: "DISABLED HOMELESS VETERAN PLEASE HELP GOD BLESS." On the back, scrawled over photos of coconut and cream filling, is his lawyer's phone number, just in case he needs it. He needs it pretty often.
If that sign helps Meyer earn $14 a day, his goal rate of donations, he is satisfied. That's enough for two cheap pints from the market down the street, a bologna sandwich and the bus fare to the apartment he rents by the month. He is good at this, he says, meaning panhandling, and he knows why. For 22 years of his life, he worked as a mailman, and what they say about rain and shine is true: Today, the weather affects not his longevity but his skin, which is sun-died, rough and stretched tight over his face.
Meyer was born 61 years ago in the Bronx, where he lived for three years before moving to the burbs of Huntington. Although he didn't live there long enough to develop it, he still has the accent. Meyer graduated high school during the height of the Vietnam War, and college was never an option. "When my father told me to join the Navy" to follow in his footsteps, says Meyer, "I did. That was it."
Before his ship-out date, Meyer wasted his time at the post office, where he followed a suggestion from his mother to be more like his cousin Freddie. When he returned to the country in 1972 after his four-year mandatory tour, Meyer returned to the job and stayed for an additional two decades-plus. With his steady government paychecks, he was able to propose to a pretty brunette named Lynn Schultz, whom he met at his sister's birthday party.
With Lynn's sister and Meyer's Navy buddy, they had a double wedding. Afterward, Steve and Lynn quickly upgraded their small carriage house to a four-bedroom they filled with two children. Scott and Janelle Schultz, now 30 and 27, spent their time in the backyard, where the family built a thirteen-by-26-foot swimming pool and fitted it with a short, white diving board.
He has not seen either of his kids since 1999.
Page down to continue reading about Steve Meyer. Here, Meyer's story is interrupted by a tan Cadillac whose owner motions at Meyer with a $1 bill. The effort it takes to reach it -- Meyer must gather his walker, arrange it, and shuffle slowly over the curb - lasts longer than a stoplight, and the driver grows impatient. Finally, Meyer grabs the bill, pockets it in the top of his three layers (it is 67 degrees), adjusts his beanie, adjusts his walker and shuffles back.
"I have problems with the curbs," Meyer says. "When I trip I can't get up and then the cops come and the ambulance comes and they all come." His legs are weak, but this is not the injury that changed his life.
In 1996, Meyer was diagnosed with depression after his job at the post office grew dark. Three of his supervisors mocked him endlessly, he says, and it took a year of litigation to convince his employers that the mental disease was a result of his job. During this process, while he and Lynn paid their $557 mortgage payments with her salary as a retirement home nurse, their relationship soured. By the time he earned his first $2,055 check from workman's comp, she had divorced him. They have not spoken since.
The tiny apartment with which he replaced their four-bedroom home did not suit him, so he left it as often as he could. He went to the tracks, where he bet on horses at Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga, and he visited topless bars with names like the Carousel and the Tender Trap. He started drinking, and then he started drinking more. He earned multiple DWI's in New York, and he earned stints in rehab and sober homes, where he went to AA meetings three times a day with people who drank perfume and Benadryl.
Today, Meyer drinks his alcohol out of Gatorade bottles, where he mixes it with Hawaiian punch and then sips at night on the corner of Yosemite and Colfax or the corner of Lincoln and 6th. When the doctors told him his new depression medicine conflicted with alcohol, Meyer chose the drink over the pills. Meyer moved to Denver by accident, when a visit to a Navy bud in 2000 lasted twelve years.
When his workman's comp ended in 2005, he did not return to the postal service. Instead, he supplemented his $985 monthly VA payment with panhandling, which he quickly learned to do passively. He moved from Champa to York to Josephine to Colfax and then to its Yosemite branch, where "me and my friend Ron take turns here, and we do good," he says. "I just can't walk out to the cars, or I get yelled at by cops. And I'm not supposed to drink outside."
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Sometimes when he cannot pay his rent, he sleeps on the streets. When he can raise $200 outside of his rent payment, Meyer plans to move to Arizona or Las Vegas. "There are too many laws here," he says. "There are too many rules."
He will walk down the street and buy a new satchel, which he will fill with his one pair of jeans and a couple shirts. He will buy a razor, and he will cut his gray-white beard. He will take a Greyhound bus to Arizona -- he's not sure which city -- and he will "figure things out."
"I will have to let my daughter know about my new address," he says, "in case she wants to write. I write letters sometimes now, but I don't deliver them. I really did like my job at that post office."
Learn more about homelessness in Denver from our feature article "For the homeless, 'urban camping' is no picnic."