Homeless on the Range: The Life and Death of a Rodeo Cowboy

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," including personal essays. Jeanie Anderson sent this account of discovering that her father was homeless:

When I was young, I lived in a single-parent household. My mother worked and my father was a rodeo cowboy — that is, before he became homeless. My mother, brother and I lived in Denver near Cheesman Park, and we often saw homeless people. I would always be looking for a cowboy with a black hat and a smile that looked like mine. I just knew he was out there and he needed me...if I could only find him. When my mother would tell me to clean my room or do some mundane chore, I'd think: My father will come rescue me and she will just have to wait and see, while we ride off into the sunset, me and him on his horse. But I was only twelve and that is what little girls dream of. Heroes, not homeless men.

I often looked at a picture of my father and me on his horse. It was a black-and-white photo. He is young and handsome. I'm the little smiling baby sitting in the saddle with him. We both look so happy. How could it be that only eleven years later the picture seemed like a fading dream? How could he be homeless? Why was he homeless? How could he be so close to me yet so far away? Why wouldn't my mom just go get him and bring him home? Did he love me? Did anyone feed him if he was hungry? Did he get cold? I would spend countless nights wondering all these things. Funny, my father was only about five miles away from me, but it seemed like a million miles in my small world.

Then one day, my mother and I were driving down Colfax and she excitedly says to me, "There is your father." I look around; I don't see a cowboy? She pulls over into a dingy-looking parking lot by a liquor store, the kind of place you don't want to hang around, and she hollers at the man. He turns his head and looks at her as though he does not recognize her, and I stare at him. It's as though time has stood still. He walks towards us, my heart is beating fast. I'm thinking a hundred questions that will never pass my lips. Where is his hat? He doesn't look like that in my picture. He looks old, and tired. She is lying to me, I just know it.

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My mother tells him, while waving her hand in my direction, "This is your daughter." He won't look at me. I stare at him, and I feel myself getting hot, and I feel like I can't breathe. I just sit there and I want to cry because he doesn't even say hello. I stare down at my dirty red Converse shoes. My mother speaks to him for a few more minutes. I don't even hear the words being spoken. I just want to leave. She pulls away, and looks at me with pity.

I scream at her in my twelve-year-old voice: "You're a liar, that is not my father, he is not my father." She says nothing. We get home and I run into my room and slam the door and I cry. It just can't be him — why would she say that? He is not my dad, the dad I dream of, the dad I hope for. He looks like a bum, a homeless man. Not my father.

Deep down, I realize at some point that she is not lying because she does not chase me down or try to explain anything to me, and I'm left with my little heart shred into pieces. I try as hard as I can to understand why he would want to live on the streets, why he wouldn't look at me. It makes me mad at my mother. Why could I not just have my little fantasy of him? Why did she have to shove the truth in my face: that every single one of those homeless people have families, mothers, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons — and I have a homeless father. That is not in my realm of my fantasy, where life is good, people are happy and my dad is a real cowboy who loves me.

Five years later, my father lies in a hotel on Larimer Street were many homeless people stay when they have saved a bit of money, like from donating blood. Who knows what he is thinking as he lies there in the bed, laboring to breathe? I often like to think that he is remembering the time he and I posed for a picture on a horse, smiling as if the world would always be beautiful and bright. By morning he is dead. The death certificate says pneumonia. He was 46 years old.

By this time I am a girl of almost eighteen and I get a call from a distant relative who tells me they read an obituary in the Denver Post and they think it is about my father. It was. He was buried at Fort Logan and the paper said he was a corporal in the U.S. Army and that no next of kin could be found. He was buried with no pomp and circumstance. No one attended his funeral, No one spoke of the lovely family he once had or of his daughter and son, or of his rodeo days, when he was the youngest all-around cowboy at the National Western Stock Show one year.

But someone did cry.

That little girl cried. She drove down to that cemetery as soon as she got a car and sat down by the white etched headstone that looked like every other headstone in the perfect formation, and she touched his name carved into the stone, and she realized that this was the closest she had been to him since the day that she refused to believe a homeless man was her father.

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