Call him Joe.
No, Joe isn't his real name. But his mother, who lives in the Denver metro area, fears that if we used his actual moniker, he wouldn't get the help he needs — or he wouldn't accept it.
Most people who see Joe on the 16th Street Mall, where he spends much of his time, undoubtedly assume he's homeless. He tends to look disheveled, with hair that's generally wild and unkempt. But the 26-year-old actually has a place to stay — his mom's house. She's thrilled when he's home, because she can take care of him then. And when he's on the medication prescribed to help mitigate the effects of what's been diagnosed on three separate occasions as paranoid schizophrenia, she says he does well there. At those times, he's loving and considerate — the real Joe.
But he's frequently off his meds — he doesn't like the way he feels on them — and often prefers to take street drugs instead, "which is pretty common with people who suffer from mental illness," his mom points out. "They have a dual diagnosis: a mental illness coupled with addiction."
Under such circumstances, Joe tends to view his mother's love and concern with suspicion. "He thinks I'm trying to kill him," she acknowledges. So he leaves home and eventually winds up on the 16th Street Mall. His mom explains that "he likes to drown out the voices in his head with the noise of the city."
His disappearances don't dissuade Joe's mom from trying to help him, but they make her efforts more difficult. Over the past several years, she's battled bureaucracies in the medical and legal fields to try to ensure that he's receiving support, with varying levels of success. Some people she's encountered along the way have been wonderfully compassionate. Too bad the social safety net often seems to be made entirely of red tape.
Yet Joe's mom has found a few people she can always count on to be there for her boy, including a man named Ed. He's been homeless in the past, but he's got a place of his own right now — a rented room. And he has a job, too. He works at the 16th Street Mall McDonald's, near the Cleveland Place intersection, as what he calls an "ambassador."
"I do meet-and-greet," Ed notes. "I maintain the upkeep of the lobby and keep things moving in an orderly fashion. I do security, too. I escort the unruly customers out and make customers abide by the McDonald's rules and policies."
In addition to these duties, Ed looks after people like Joe. For months, he's served as a link between Joe and his mom, passing along warm clothing and meals purchased with food cards she provides. She can't give them to Joe directly; he'd refuse, thinking they were tricks meant to harm him. But he'll take them from Ed and Mike, another McDonald's employee who's gone many extra miles to make sure Joe is okay.
According to Joe's mom, "Meeting Ed and Mike was like meeting two angels."
Ed accepts this compliment with becoming modesty. "I identify with people who aren't able to maintain jobs because of mental illness and aren't able to take care of themselves because of different disabilities," he says. "So I try to help out. It's just something I do out of my own kind heart."
For Joe's mom, the assistance provided by Ed and Mike has been more consistent than anything she's experienced in the four years or so since her son's condition reached its present level of seriousness. When asked if they've been more reliable than any of the public agencies charged with dealing with issues like his, she answers with a single word: "Absolutely."
As an example of the challenges she faces in advocating for Joe, his mom talks about her experiences with the Mental Health Center of Denver.
"I got him hooked into MHCD," she recalls. "It took me six weeks to get in, and it was hard to navigate to even get approval for the initial intake — to get approval for him to be seen. Finally, I contacted the director there, and they called me back the next day and got him an appointment. But a lot of people like my son don't have the mental capacity to make these kinds of calls. You wonder how they expect these people to get help on their own."
Finally, the appointment happened "and he was able to get some help," she goes on. "He had an amazing caseworker, too. She would come to see him, or she'd see him on this corner where he liked to stay, and she'd do outreach to him. But when he doesn't take his medicine, he tends to take off for days, weeks, even months. And if they don't have contact with a client for ninety days, they close the case, and then they have to do the whole intake thing again. That can take two to six weeks because they're so backlogged, and there's no guarantee they'll have the same caseworker again." Moreover, Joe, not his mom, has to initiate the process to reopen his case, and in her words, that "will never happen."
Things get even more complicated when Joe runs afoul of the law, as happens intermittently.
"His demeanor is very childlike, and he's super-vulnerable," his mom points out. "He always gets beaten up and he always gets taken advantage of, because he's really docile."
In an effort to protect him, Joe's mom has befriended police officers who patrol near her home, and these efforts have paid off. "One called me about two months ago, asking me to pick him up at Chili's. He'd ordered some food, but he was filthy and smelled of urine."
Despite these efforts, however, Joe has "gotten multiple minor infractions: sleeping in the park, loitering," his mom concedes. "The last infraction he got was after he stole out of a store because he was hungry, and he did get a couple of felony trespassing cases."
When she learns about such arrests from online inmate-locator tools she checks daily, Joe's mom flies into action. "After I talked with the judges, the court system dismissed four different cases: one in Douglas County, three in Denver County. And last time he was in court, they moved it to drug court." Palmer Boyette, the magistrate there, "is just incredible. It's amazing how he works with these people, a lot of them homeless."
Nonetheless, his mom continues, Joe spent 84 days in jail last year "waiting for a competency restoration or a bed at the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo to open up."
He's not the only one. Earlier this year, attorney Iris Eytan filed suit against Reggie Bicha, the Colorado Department of Human Services' executive director, and Ronald Hale, superintendent of Pueblo's Colorado Mental Health Institute, on behalf of Disability Law Colorado over this very issue. Delays in evaluating individuals charged with crimes who may be afflicted with a mental health disorder led to a man who spit on a police officer remaining in custody for eight months, waiting for his competency, or lack thereof, to be determined.
"These jails are dumping grounds for people like my son," his mother alleges — but the alternative can be even worse. Joe was found to be incompetent to stand trial after he was finally examined at the Colorado Mental Health Institute, but she says that "when they released him, they released him onto the street with no bridge prescription and no community resources, which is something they're not supposed to do. I raised holy hell about that. How can you release someone who was just found incompetent back into the community like that? I finally had to go to my primary-care doctor to get his prescription filled."
A psychiatrist at the Colorado Mental Health Institute suggested to Joe's mom that she might have more control over such situations if she filed for legal guardianship of him. But, she reveals, "I don't have the means to hire a lawyer to do all that for me. When you don't have the financial means to help your son, it's tough — and it's not that simple."
Fortunately, good things happened after Joe's sister ran into her brother on the 16th Street Mall. They ate at the McDonald's and she learned about Ed and Mike, who had been watching out for Joe. His sister soon got a phone number for them, and after dialing it, his mom made her first trip to McDonald's with a care package of assorted clothing and socks. It wouldn't be her last.
"There are some people out there whose families don't care," Ed admits. "So if you see someone who actually cares for their family member, you want to help them out as much as possible." Joe's mom "really wants her son to get help, but in the current situation, there's really no help. So I try to get into contact with her, let her know her son is okay and give her a sense of well-being that he's being looked after to a certain extent."
Not that Ed follows Joe around. But, he says, "I give him things that will help him make it through the day. If he hasn't eaten that day, I go get him a meal. If he doesn't have a jacket and it's cold, or if he doesn't have a hat, I'll look in the lost-and-found. If something's been sitting in there for six months, why not give it to someone who needs it? The other day, there were a couple of young ladies who didn't want to go outside because it was cold, so I got them jackets."
He can't let such folks linger inside the restaurant indefinitely. "At the end of the day, it's a business, and we have to keep it running like a business," he says. "Some people have a sense of entitlement — like, they bought a cup of coffee, so they should be able to go to sleep there. No, you need to consume your product. We have a thirty-minute grace period — a sign that says if you're here longer than thirty minutes, it can result in you being escorted out. And some homeless people want to come in with a lot of bags, but we have a no-bags policy."
In 2016, amid a debate about the impact of homelessness, addiction and crime on the 16th Street Mall, the Downtown Denver Partnership initiated a new safety plan that included the hiring of a security team intended to prevent problems before they started. The crew remains on duty, and Tami Door, the partnership's president and CEO, stresses that members are trained to be compassionate to homeless individuals and do everything they can to refer them to helpful agencies or organizations such as the St. Francis Center, a ministry affiliated with the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado whose outreach workers are partially funded by the DDP. "We try to get people connected to services," she says. "But not everybody will take them."
Many of those who won't eventually find their way to the McDonald's lobby Ed oversees, and even when they react badly to a request that they move along ("Some of them get agitated and irritated," he says), he goes out of his way to treat them with respect. In Joe's case, this quality has been returned. "He was asleep in the store and I asked him to leave — and he was nice about it," he recalls. "That stood out. But when I talk to people, I always have a caring heart."
Take, for instance, "a person who doesn't want to leave because they're afraid they're going to be attacked when they leave," he offers. "I, as the ambassador, will go out and look and make sure there's nothing outside that's going to hurt them. My job is to make sure everybody who comes in feels safe. And it's a good place to eat. It's the least expensive food on the 16th Street Mall, and it's clean, even with the homeless population. We want everyone to feel comfortable and safe and leave with a smile on their face. It doesn't matter if you're rich or if you're homeless; I don't discriminate. Everybody's the same in my book."
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Still, over the course of an average day, he sees a lot of struggling people.
"There are so many mental patients," he observes. "We get cases in here on a daily basis. There's one lady who I know has been arrested on multiple occasions, but she's right out the next day. I saw her digging in trash cans for food one day, and when I gave her some, she spit it out right in front of me and threw the food on the ground. I feel bad for her, and for other people who have mental problems and are off their medication. There's nobody to intercede and get them some kind of help."
No one other than Ed and Mike, that is — and Joe's mother understands the value of their efforts. She feels their unconventional way of caring for her son is effective because it is non-intrusive. Unlike conventional agencies, "there are no strings attached." Joe doesn't have to worry about keeping scheduled appointments: "He just shows up, and they feed him if there is enough on the gift cards I buy or get clothes if needed.
"I don't know how long this help will go on," she admits. "However, I will be forever grateful for Ed and Mike."