Homelessness in Cortez: How it happens

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Homelessness has many facets. Each story is unique. Recently I was able to interview four guests staying at the Bridge Emergency Shelter in Cortez about the factors that led them there. The shelter provides free overnight housing from mid-October through mid-April in the Justice Building on the edge of Centennial Park. The shelter faces an uncertain future, as Montezuma County, which owns it, is trying to sell the building as part of a move to a new county courthouse.

I also spoke with Laurie Knutson, who is in her fourth year as the shelter’s executive director. She said the shelter averaged 40 guests a night in January. There were 49 one night in February when I visited.

The Bridge is unusual in that it accepts inebriated guests, but they constitute only about a fifth of its clients. The four men I interviewed are all part of the sober clientele.

All four provided their real names and were willing to have me use them. However, I ultimately decided to give them false names for this article because two of them talked about family members whom I was not able to interview for their perspective. Rather than have two clients using real names and two with false, I gave them all pseudonyms.


Guests at the Bridge Emergency Shelter in Cortez wait for it to open at 6 p.m. one night in February. Photo by Gail Binkly

“Fred,” 56, wound up at the Bridge in November because his brother is a convicted sex offender – at least, that’s how he sees it.

It’s the first time he’s ever stayed in a shelter. He tells the story of how he came to be there in short sentences, sounding almost apologetic.

“Family issues,” he says. “I didn’t get along with my younger brother. He lives with my mom, in Cortez.”

Fred says his parents moved to Cortez in 1984. He did, too, but later left for Salt Lake City, Utah, where he’s lived before. “I’ve been moving all around.”

Married and divorced twice, he has three grown children. The youngest, a 19-year-old daughter, recently became pregnant. She, Fred and his brother were staying at his mother’s place outside Cortez, his father having died in 2011. But the pregnancy changed the home’s dynamic, as Fred’s brother has been convicted three times of sexual assault on a child, the victims ranging in age from 11 to 15. He is registered as a sex offender and is listed as a sexually violent predator.

“When my daughter got pregnant, she got on social services,” Fred says. “They said the environment was not fit for a baby because my brother was convicted once of a violent sex crime. They told her they would take the baby if she stayed, because it could not be around him.

“My mom said my daughter would probably have to move. That upset me. I figured he should have been the one to pick up and go. She’s 19. He’s 42 years old.”

This led to an altercation during which law enforcement was called to escort Fred from the home. He says the situation never came to blows, and he was not charged with anything.

A friend told him about the Bridge. “This place really helps, especially when it’s cold,” he says. “In December it was 4 below.”

Fred has worked throughout his life, but physical problems now make it difficult to find employment.

He says he was born with a back problem that was exacerbated when he crashed on a three-wheeler at the age of 16. He also has spinal stenosis, arthritis, and carpal tunnel syndrome. In 2010 he began having seizures, and a few years ago he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Now he’s on a dozen medications.

He says he worked as a park ranger at Mesa Verde for five years until his back problems became too severe. He’s also a certified electrostatic painter, meaning he does powder-coating. He has done welding, carpentry, and mechanics, and has taken some business classes. Fred is on disability and has some retirement income as well, he says, “but when they take out my medical it’s not enough for a place to live.”

“In Utah or New Mexico, my Medicaid pays everything, but in Colorado I have a copay. They say, ‘we’re going to give you this but take $300 out’ and then they take it out of whatever little check you do get.”

He does odd jobs through day labor, to the extent that his back allows. “But if I work really good one day, it’s a week or so before I can work again.

“I’ve got a lot of history behind me, but my physical problems – people say I’m a liability on their insurance, so nobody wants to hire me.”

When he can’t work and the weather is cold, he hangs out at the usual places.

“I go to the library – City Market or Mc- Donald’s if I have a couple bucks.”

Fred is trying to save money to get back to Salt Lake City, where all his children now live. His daughter’s baby will be born in June, and he’d like to be there for her. His son would let him stay in his apartment, he says, but he is reluctant. “I don’t want to be a burden on them. They say I’m not a burden but with my seizures and stuff, I feel like I am. I try to stay away. I take my tent and camp in the mountains so I can be by myself. They say, ‘No, Dad, that’s homeless’.”

Last summer he lived in the tent for about a month. “My daughter did come see me every day.”

Although he wants to be near his children, living with them would be too much, he says, because they try to tell him what to do. “I love my kids, they’re great. But my youngest daughter is bossy. I spent 18 years taking care of them. I don’t need them to take care of me.” So if he does make it to Salt Lake this spring, he’ll try to find a place of his own for the winter.

In the meantime, he has the Bridge.

“It’s a lot better than most places I’ve been in and a lot better than when it was a jail,” he says with a laugh, referring to the fact that the Justice Building was once the county detention center. “I like all the staff. For the most part, I like the other people here.

“Everybody’s got a different story.”

Knutson agrees. “There are so many reasons for people to enter the homelessness cycle. Most will not talk about the traumas that disrupted their relationships with families or partners, and to deal with trauma and pain, people turn to chemicals and that becomes its own vicious trap.

“Some people just have the misfortune of running out of money in a country of renters. As mortgages have become less attainable, more people rent. That drives rents up and people get forced out of housing, especially if they’re aging.

“Few choose to be homeless. Those that do, tend not to come to the shelter. Most people who come here want to be housed, but some like living in tents in the middle of nowhere. Our BLM lands in the summer are full of people camped out in little corners.

“Homelessness is a complicated issue because there isn’t one entry point. If there were, it would be easier to construct services for that.”

Knutson says Fred is “the first one to help out the staff here and do extra things.” Most of the Bridge clients are “nice, nice people,” she says, “and they are more typical of homeless people than society wants to admit.

“You can be a very nice person and your biggest sin is not having a lot of money. No one is talking about the adverse effects of poverty and how that determines the outcomes of your life. Once a single male loses the ability to do full-time work, there’s not much help. If you’re 50 and worked for years doing really hard work and hurt your back, there’s not much help.

“Even if you can get disability, the average payment is about $750 a month. Try and live on that in Cortez, much less Denver.”

“Len,” 50, had “a nice house and three dogs and a husband of almost 22 years” in Dolores. That all changed one night in December.

Born in, California, Len says he did standup comedy in Hollywood in his late teens and even made a couple of demo CDs. Later he went to work in the entertainment industry, working on commercials and productions, casting and wardrobes.

He met his husband in 1995 and they developed a five-year plan to get out of Hollywood. But in just three months they had resigned their jobs and moved to Flagstaff, Ariz., near his parents. After a number of years they sold their house and moved to Vermont because the company Len worked for was supposedly going to expand there. However, the company pulled out, leaving them jobless in a beautiful home on two acres. After a long struggle, they lost the house.

A friend in Bluff, Utah, offered them a place, so they returned to the Southwest. In 2013 they moved to Dolores.

But all was not well. Len says both of them suffered from depression. When Gary lost his mother, his despondency became overwhelming and he attempted suicide “through a fall,” Len says. Gary suffered horrific injuries, including numerous broken bones and a shattered jaw. He was air-lifted to Grand Junction and wasn’t expected to be alive when the plane landed, but amazingly, he survived.

“So I made a big life decision,” Len says. “I made a leap of faith and picked him up from Grand Junction.”

But taking care of Gary turned out to be a herculean, around-the-clock task. “Summer was hell,” Len says.

He says Gary, who required numerous surgeries and still has limited mobility, began drinking and had frequent fits of delirium. Len, who has numerous mental- health issues, drank as well, though he’s sober now.

One night in December, Gary called police, saying Len had punched him and hit him with an iron poker. The lengthy incident report says Len appeared to have been drinking and the alcohol had possibly interacted with a new medication he was taking. He denied attacking Gary, but was charged with assault and domestic violence and thus had to leave. “I had nothing but a pair of sweats and a T-shirt. It was 15 degrees.” He ended up at the Bridge.

Len claims Gary had been abusing him, and rolls up his sleeves to show scars. He says he acted in self-defense that night. “I could see the look in his eyes — he had just checked out. I had to turn the tables.”

The court case was pending as of press time. For various reasons, Len hasn’t sought a civil standby that would allow him to return home to get his things, so he’s without even his smartphone.

“I have been tossed up and down like a goddamned salad over the last couple weeks. Luckily I have a very loving family.”

Len – who takes multiple medications for post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disease and bipolar disease and sees a doctor and a social worker regularly – is on disability. “It gets me my coffee in the morning.” He often buys some for all the shelter clients.

One of the most difficult things about being homeless, he says, is occupying the hours between 7 a.m., when clients are turned out of the Bridge, and 6 p.m., when they can return. It’s a constant cycle of wandering between the library, the grocery stores, and fast food.

“What do we do all day? Kill time,” he says wearily.

He says he’s stigmatized as a troublemaker because of the actions of drunken street people. Len says he’s been ordered not to sit at tables outside local supermarkets even when he’s just purchased something from the deli inside.

But the shelter is a bright spot. He says the other guests are, on the whole, “a great bunch of people.”

“It’s a melting pot here. The different Americans are right here – people who are eating cat food, who can’t afford their medications. They’re wonderful people who’d give you the shirt off their back.

“I sing and I write. When I make it, I’m going to tell their story.”

He hopes the charges against him will be dismissed and he’ll be able to find a part-time job and reunite with his husband. His family is moving to Prescott, Ariz., he says, adding optimistically, “I think both Gary and I will end up there.”

Only a small number of the shelter’s guests, maybe 5 percent, are involved in domestic violence, either as victims or perpetrators, Knutson estimates. Women who have been the victims of a recent assault can go to the Renew safe house. Men wind up at the Bridge. Female domestic-violence victims who drink may come to the Bridge because drinking is against Renew’s policy.

If domestic violence is only a small factor in homelessness, mental-health problems and substance abuse are major ones. “I would guess half of our guests struggle with either or both mental health and addictions,” she says. “For decades there has not been a larger-picture response to those issues.”

Seeing people in the park, at the market, or on the street who are obviously mentally ill is disturbing, but most are harmless, Knutson says. “If you haven’t dealt with it, it can be pretty off-putting. It does not make people want to approach. All the hurts and heartaches that came before those mental-health issues or addiction are invisible, but the external behaviors are very visible. I know it makes people in the community unsettled. It’s unsettling for me.”

“Martin,” 57, isn’t homeless year-round. He works in Salina, Utah, from March through October, “and then the work shuts down and the town shuts down.” So he comes to Cortez to work, and stays at the Bridge.

Martin is a jack of all trades, able to do plumbing, electrical wiring, flooring, and more. Often he oversees projects.

He grew up on a farm and attended a Catholic school “when the nuns were still cracking knuckles.”

“I was raised by the back of the hand,” he says. “My parents were extremely strict. I graduated high school and then went straight into the army, so I’ve had a pretty straight and narrow life.”

He doesn’t drink or do drugs and has no physical ailments to speak of. “I have issues with my hearing, maybe from the artillery or from working in a steel mill, but other than that, the Lord blessed me.”

Martin was married and working at a good job in Arkansas, but seven years ago his life changed abruptly when his wife died. “Then the good Lord put me on a road trip and I wound up in Utah, then Cortez. I think it’s a beautiful world. I’ve seen 40 some states already and four countries.”

When he’s working in Utah, his employers provide him a home as part of his salary. This year he was able to rent it out, so when he goes back he’ll have some money put away. He saves half his salary in hopes he’ll eventually be able to retire to his Utah home.

“I hope the good Lord gives me 10 more years, because I want to work at least that long. I’m old-school. I love and respect everybody.” Martin found out about the Bridge one day four years ago, after he’d been working in Durango. “I got to Cortez after walking almost the whole way,” he says with a laugh. “It was a Sunday and people were leaving church. I was sitting at the Maverik and some people told me where the shelter was.

“There is a lot of compassion here. I’ve never seen anybody be derogatory toward anybody in this town. It’s a nice community. The police are great people. They don’t harass nobody unless you’re a knucklehead.”

He has nothing but praise for the Bridge and donates to it whenever he can. “The staff is compassionate and there are a lot of great people staying here. Fifty, 75 percent of them are working almost every day..”

Martin says it was a strange path that led him to Cortez. “I probably never would have left Arkansas,” he muses. “I made $1500 to $1600 a week. But when the good Lord took my wife home, it was a bumpy ride, so here I be.”

“Most of the homeless population is on the move,” Knutson says. “There are very few people who are here year after year. We had 323 different clients last year, with 40 to 43 people a night, so all of them can’t be here at one time.”

Some are able to obtain housing, but others just move on. “We counted at the end of last year and there were 43 who got long-term housing. Only two of them lost that. The problem is, last year we had 50 more homeless people than the year before. More people found places to go, but the problem didn’t dwindle.

“How do you find enough affordable housing? I can’t blame landlords for charging market rents but it makes it really impossible for the lower-income people. There will never be enough public housing, and some people – because of a choice they made long, long ago – will never be allowed in there anyway.

“If you ever sexually offended, you’re out of public housing. If you ever had a drug charge, that excludes you permanently from public housing. They may have been clean 10 or 20 years, but they’re not going to get into public housing. They’ll also have difficulty getting hired. I would find it discouraging if I were in that position myself. I don’t know how you dig out.”

“Allen,” 66, was born in California and has worked all his life. He says he spent 16 years in sales with Oscar Meyer in Los Angeles. He worked the last 13 years for two different employers in asphalt and seal-coating. The asphalt job kept him traveling across the West, from Texas to North Dakota or Montana. He’s never been married and was an only child, so he has no family now.

However, work dwindled, so he left Texas for Colorado. Over the past 18 months, unable to find steady employment, he’s been “living hand to mouth.”

Last October, he arrived in Alamosa and stayed in a shelter there, then moved on. He’s been at the Bridge since the first week in December.

“I’m thankful to have a place to go,” he says.

He seeks day labor and has worked about eight days for different employers. “I do clean-up, furniture-moving, helping somebody put together a shop, things like that. I’m willing to do basically anything. I’ve applied at some restaurants for dish-washing. Because of my age, it’s harder to get a job. I’m not a cook or a chef. I’ve registered with the workforce center. I go around and check with some of the businesses.”

He was able to get a cell phone with help from the nonprofit Piñon Project so employers have a place to reach him, since the shelter isn’t open days.

His health is good, he says, and he doesn’t do drugs or alcohol.

He recently filed for Social Security and Medicare and says that will be a big benefit. He plans to apply for public housing once he has a regular income, but it may be some time before anything opens up. Still, he has no complaints.

“I walk a lot. I enjoy just getting out. I make friends. I think you can learn something new every day. You’ve got to do the best you can. Nobody owes you a living.”

He says the Bridge’s clients all have different stories. “Some came from broken homes, some got in trouble in their teens. This is a place to go and try to get on your feet, not just a place to hang your head. It gives you somewhere to stay, do your laundry, eat.

“I ’m very thankful I have a place to come to and I’m taking advantage of the opportunity. You have to make an effort every day. I’m not a quitter.”

Knutson says the men’s stories are “pretty typical.”

“I think there’s still a good chunk of people who feel like the homeless have earned their status, but when you talk to them you find out how normal they are.” Many don’t need a shelter, she says, just affordable housing, but it’s nowhere to be found.

Last season the Bridge recorded more than 6,000 bed-nights (one person staying one night is a single bed-night). Knutson says this year they will be “way over that.”

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