We've received many, many responses to "Stoner Hill," our cover story about a refuge for homeless youth in Denver, as well as "Homeless in Denver: The Cold, Hard Facts Behind Six Myths." Nancy Wilson, who found herself homeless herself last year, sent this first-person account:
Sausage and Salvation
The view from the second-floor dining room at Samaritan House in Denver depends on which direction you look. To the west are rows of upscale apartments, homes for the upwardly mobile young professionals flooding into Denver’s emerging Ballpark neighborhood adjacent to Coors Field. To the east is the venerable Denver Rescue Mission, temporary refuge for the less fortunate homeless who can be seen strewn about the sidewalks of Lawrence Street or Park Avenue West. The more fortunate homeless who reside at Samaritan House can claim a place to sleep for several months or longer, as well as three meals a day. Tenure at Samaritan House, though, is contingent upon sobriety, search for employment, and willingness to save a large percentage of the resulting income.
At 6 a.m. at Samaritan House, the dining room filled slowly with sleepy men, women and children. For anyone awake enough to notice, the residents’ attire served as an inadvertent advertisement for the shelter’s repository of donated items, the Clothing Room: a Maui T-shirt here, a USC ball cap there, a black-and-gold CU jacket hanging on a chair.
The plump, gray-haired woman in front of me in the breakfast line was pregnant, she said, with her fifth child. Her body was stuffed into a polyester print dress like kielbasa in a casing. She confided that her pregnancy was the result of rape. Her story hit me like a punch in the stomach. I felt powerless, unable to help either one of us. Like so many others among the homeless, we nonchalantly told tales of trauma or tragedy as though they were unremarkable. The stories were the same; only the details were different: violence, illness, abuse, dysfunction, addiction, unemployment, financial reversal.
I glanced around the room. The clientele could have been any group anywhere, except that they were older, younger, and much more infirm. On a per capita basis, there were more crutches, canes, walkers, wheelchairs and portable oxygen bottles than could be found among any random population in the country. But fewer teeth. Definitely fewer teeth.
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I recalled a recent conversation over lunch at Samaritan House with a tall, stooped man whose mustache hid a toothless smile. He explained that he’d lost his teeth to crystal meth. He also had lost one eye, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask what had happened to his eye.
Still looking around the room, I spotted a large, sixty-something woman with wild white hair. Around her neck, suspended by a length of red yarn, was a green-construction paper sign advising, “I am deaf. I read lips.” She was pointing to a series of purple blotches on her arm, complaining that they were bedbug bites.
In contrast to its colorful clients, the Samaritan House dining room is a bland, rectangular space dotted with two dozen or so hard-top round tables and lit by unforgiving fluorescent lights. The decor is industrial chic: All surfaces are practically indestructible. The entrance to the room leads past a white-tiled cave of a kitchen.
As I made my way through the breakfast line, French toast, sausage patties and hard-boiled eggs were delivered efficiently on beige plastic trays. In most cases, service came with a smile that belied the kitchen crew’s 3:30 a.m. reveille. (All adult residents of Samaritan House are required to complete a one-time, thirteen-hour kitchen duty.) Just in front of the cafeteria line, an assortment of dry cereals and pastries filled a large metal table.
With a tray full of French toast and syrup, I lingered by the pastry table and unwisely contemplated a glazed doughnut in a King Soopers bakery box marked HALF PRICE, $2.49. “Don’t do it,” advised a deep male voice behind me. “It’ll go straight to your hips.” Unfortunately, not the first time.
I found a seat with a view of the Rescue Mission. Through the morning shadows, the red neon cross on the side of the old brick building shone brightly and promised JESUS SAVES. Beyond the Mission was Denver’s glorious, gap-toothed skyline: intermittent skyscrapers punctuated by lower, less impressive structures. As I watched, the skyscrapers’ glass skin began to reflect the blaze of the rising sun. And a quick glance at the sky, with not a cloud on the horizon, foretold the day’s weather as mostly sunny.
Immediately outside the window, between the dining room and the Rescue Mission, is a large patio built around a set of colorful playground equipment. At this hour of morning, the patio beckons to every smoker in the building. This morning, a dollar-store cowboy in a black Stetson-style hat smoked casually and perused the view. His wrinkled tan trench coat extended past his calves, and his wide-legged jeans pooled on the ground, obscuring a pair of marshmallow-white tennis shoes.
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Back inside, a small boy bursting with red hair and freckles sat in a blue plastic chair at one of the hard round tables. His feet dangled halfway to the beige-and-blue, commercial-grade tile floor. On his breakfast tray, an unpeeled banana stood on its back, its curve and orientation reminiscent of an exotic tropical boat. The boy sliced into a hardboiled egg with the edge of his fork. As his mother reached to steady his chair, he speared the egg and waved it proudly in the air like a captured spaceship.
Oblivious to the child and his treasure, a man at the next table asked his companion, “Hey, Robert, when I get old, am I gonna want Velcro shoes?” I glanced in their direction and wondered silently if the two of them didn’t look eons older than their actual years. It’s a hard life being homeless.
Somewhere on the perimeter of the room, a phone rang. No one answered.
Read many more letters about homelessness in the December 17, 2015 edition of Westword.