In November 2020, Mark "Shorty" Montes
heard about a new sheltering option coming to Denver: a safe-camping site that would be opening at a church in the Uptown neighborhood the next month.
At first, he wasn't totally sold. For Montes, now fifty, the thought of a uniform ice-fishing tent at a site that offered centralized access to sanitation and services sounded just too different from how he'd been living on the streets since his life had fallen apart a decade earlier. The North High School graduate often spent his days with a beer in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other; he'd tried shelters, but got kicked out of one for using his own cleaning method to ensure that he wouldn't have to deal with bedbugs, he recalls. That meant he usually slept in a makeshift tent or underneath a tarp in a Denver park, or anywhere else he could find a modicum of serenity.
But Montes decided to give it a try, and he moved into the Denver Community Church safe-camping site, run by the Colorado Village Collaborative
, in January 2021.
Today, Montes's life is totally transformed. After surviving on the streets for over a decade, Montes now lives in his own apartment in Ruby Hill. "I feel like a weight is off me," he says.
Montes was the focus of a Westword cover story in May 2021
. The cover showed his happy face looking out from the plastic window of his tent at the safe-camping site. He got an issue as soon as it hit the stands; he displayed it in the window of his tent. The copy is weathered now because it spent so much time in that window, but Montes hangs on to it.
"He started as kind of 'Eh, I'll give it a go' to 'Oh my gosh, this was so helpful and so needed, and I want everyone to be able to feel the way I feel right now,'" says Cuica Montoya, the Safe Outdoor Space program director for the CVC. Montoya has been working on the Denver safe-camping site program from the start.
Mark Montes has been proudly displaying the Westword cover that featured his face.
While he was living at the site, Montes got a job cleaning and helping maintain the 16th Street Mall, a gig he was very proud of, especially since the MLB All-Star Game was coming to town and tourists would be flocking to the mall.
When the CVC's lease ran its course at the Denver Community Church, in late May 2021 Montes moved to a safe-camping site run by the St. Francis Center and the CVC in a Regis University parking lot. That summer, after a long week of work, Montes suffered what he refers to as a "light stroke." He stopped working on the mall.
"Housing is a huge part of health care. It’s really hard to take care of your health when you don’t have the basic access to the resources and services you need to be well," Montoya notes.
This February, an outreach team with the Stout Street Health Center, which specializes in serving people experiencing homelessness, visited the Regis site and checked on Montes. "His oxygen was pretty low. He was then hospitalized for close to a week after that," says Sarah Axelrath, a doctor with the Stout Street Health Center
who checked Montes's oxygen that day. (Montes gave Axelrath permission to talk with Westword
about his medical issues.) "It turns out that he had some pretty serious underlying chronic lung issues that he wasn’t aware of," Axelrath adds.
Doctors diagnosed Montes, a longtime smoker, with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, aka COPD, and diabetes.
Montes now uses supplemental oxygen. He can't return to working on the mall and is talking with a case manager to figure out the next step: whether he will get disability or some form of a pension, or could take on a job that isn't too taxing.
In the meantime, with the help of a handful of individuals from the army of service providers who work with people experiencing homelessness in Denver, Montes moved into his one-bedroom apartment on April 1. He got to choose where he'd want to live, and Ruby Hill is near where he spent some of his childhood.
Rent for the unit is $1,000 a month, and a housing voucher covers rent and utilities. Montes also gets food stamps, which he uses for grocery shopping.
"It feels really amazing that he’s now housed and that he made it to the other side. That bridge from streets to housing is kind of complete for him. I couldn’t be more proud and happy for him," Montoya says. "He’s so amazing."
Since this is the first time that Montes has had his own place in over a decade, he's excited to be able to cook again in his own kitchen. He prepared steak and eggs when he first arrived. He plans to make his own birthday cake and whip up his favorite meal, fish and chips, for his birthday in May.
"Now I'm glad I'm off these streets and that's behind me. You know, I'm comfortable," says Montes.
Still, the first few nights of sleeping in his new apartment were tough. "I didn't know how to go to sleep in there," he recalls. "I'm used to noise from around the tents, somebody either yapping with somebody or somebody arguing with somebody. Just chaos, you know?"
But after a few days, he was sleeping just fine. And now he's dreaming big, thinking about mentoring other people and helping to chip away at the state's homelessness problem.
"It'd be a great Colorado if we can get rid of the homeless," Montes says. "Look, we brought weed in here. We're the first freakin' state. Let's be the first state to get rid of homelessness."