Glenwood Springs: Homeless in the High Country
Glenwood Springs Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado ” The Colorado River hummed as it flowed downstream. The sound of trees swaying in the wind and a squirrel running along wet rocks played along, in tune.
Cooter, who only goes by one name, joined in. He made his harmonica hum a quiet, dulcet duet with the sound of the moment.
Sitting on a bench along the river, not far from downtown Glenwood Springs, Cooter blew on his harmonica and reflected on the life he’s led in the Roaring Fork Valley and the special significance of the spot where he sat.
It’s a place where two men, tied by a common lifestyle of living without a home, fished and talked about their lives. Now Cooter has returned to this place to remember his departed friend, Paul Friel.
“This is my buddy’s Paul’s place,” said Cooter, 55. “This place has special significance for me. The water is beautiful.”
Cooter’s Cajun drawl and rough voice concealed some of the sadness he has about Friel’s death. Teenagers found Friel’s body behind the Roaring Fork Marketplace south of Wal-Mart on March 2 after the 47-year-old man died of an apparent heart attack.
Friel’s death shook Cooter hard, as it did a small circle of homeless people in Glenwood Springs and around the area who knew Friel. Those affected by his death include Lori, Friel’s girlfriend of two years, and Bob, who met Friel on and off over the years, and called him “the nicest guy you could meet.”
Bob and Lori also go only by their first names. Last names aren’t that important in their community.
Cooter and Lori ” who view each other as brother and sister ” live near Glenwood. Bob lives about a half-mile away from them and views Cooter as the elder statesman of their area.
“I respect him,” Bob said of Cooter.
The life experiences that brought Cooter, Lori and Bob to this point were different, and their connections to each other have been fleeting sometimes. They have their own problems.
But they all look out for each other and call one another family. The following profiles of each are cursory, incomplete stories of some of the challenges they face and the strong impact they and Friel have had on each other’s lives.
Cooter doesn’t define himself as homeless. He prefers to be called a “free spirit.”
Cooter became homeless after he was injured on the job in 1998. He bounced back and forth between Colorado and Louisiana, where he’s from, but has spent the last two years of his life in the Roaring Fork Valley without a sturdy roof over his head at night. He doesn’t mind it, though. In fact, he prefers that kind of lifestyle.
“I got a home. I ain’t homeless,” he said, referring to the camp he lives in. “I am living where I want to live.”
Cooter gets by with disability checks and refuses to “fly a sign” ” which means panhandling.
“I get $589 a month and I live on that,” he said.
Although Cooter said he’s fine with his station in life, he acknowledges the difficulties he faces. It is hard to stay dry and hard to keep warm. And sometimes he has problems with alcohol.
The biggest problem for Cooter right now has been dealing with the elements. Recent snow, rain and slush has him looking forward to the coming of the summer.
“The tent I am in is not really a four-seasons tent, it’s a summer tent,” Cooter said.
One recent blast of moisture collapsed his tent.
“The poles aren’t made for all that weight,” said Cooter, who is recovering from a recent bout with pneumonia. “It just collapsed. I had to go shake it out and set it back up.”
That experience has him looking for other housing options. Cooter knows of one good four-seasons tent. But it costs $175.
“(I) can close the windows and have the heat stay inside,” he said of the tent’s features.
But Cooter isn’t looking to buy the tent just for himself. It would also be a home for Lori.
He declined to say exactly where the camp is located for fear of the police and authorities.
The Glenwood Springs homeless community is made up of small, close-knit groups and loners, Cooter said. And many, with their backpacks and bed rolls, are coming into town every day.
“Even those who want to be alone, if they get hurt and need something, we all pitch in and help that person,” Cooter said. “We all help each other in a way. To me it’s a family, a good family. Although people call us homeless, we are not tramps, we are not bums. We are not none of that. We are just regular people.”
Many of the people of his community have a job. Others are looking for one. Some others, like Cooter, take the days as they come.
“We get up every morning and we all got something to do, we just don’t lay around all day long,” he said.
Most weekdays, Cooter makes his way into town for dinner at the Extended Table program held at the First United Methodist Church in downtown Glenwood Springs. It is one of the many programs in town that helps the homeless community.
“If a person goes hungry in this town, they don’t know nothing,” he said. “They are stupid. There are so many programs. We don’t go hungry. That’s a fact.”
Cooter counts Feed My Sheep, a local program that helps the homeless get a shower and wash their clothes, as one of the best source for help in the area. Other groups like the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and LIFT-UP also help.
“We have a lot of good programs in this town that helps us,” Cooter said. “Feed My Sheep is the program we really depend on.”
Ten years ago Lori’s life was different. She lived in San Bernardino, Calif., where she had a fiane and a wedding date. Then her fiance died. And her life hasn’t been the same since.
Still grieving, she decided to move to Basalt four years ago to live with her family members, even though she hadn’t seen them in years.
When she arrived in the valley, she soon got a job. But that “went downhill” because she was still shook up from the death of her fiance, said Lori, 48.
“It took me a while to get over it,” she said. “I let it get to me. It was my problem.”
Lori got other jobs, but then lost those and struggled with alcohol. But she began working to get over that problem and paid off her debts at the same time.
“But that put a strain on me, so I couldn’t afford to get clean and get first, last (month’s rent) and deposit all at the same time,” she said.
Lori has since become clean, she said, and now lives in a tent with Cooter. She has been living with him for about a month and has spent about a year in the Roaring Fork Valley living without a home.
But don’t call her homeless, she said.
“I don’t have a mattress or a stove, but I have a warm place to stay,” she said. “How can you say I am homeless? I have a home. We are family. I think we have better home than a lot of people. Our eyes are open and we have giving hearts.”
Lori said she is working hard to improve her life. Community programs are helping her to do that.
“We are part of the community and we are getting better with the help of the community,” said Lori, adding that she is currently studying to take her high school equivalency test.
She is also looking for a job. But living in a tent makes it difficult to “look beautiful” and look “clean” for a job interview. Her goal is to get a job when the summer rolls around, get a bank account and fill it with as much as money as she can to make a move back to California.
“I have found that if I do the same thing every day I am not going to go look for that job,” she said. “I am not going to be happy with myself (by staying in a rut). I have seen too many people like me do that.”
Although her life is difficult ” and living on the streets as a woman can be especially hard, Lori said ” being surrounded by people like Cooter and Bob has made her life slightly easier.
“When we are all together, we all got our own personalities, we know each other,” Lori said. “When we are out in the street, we really have to know our family. They are not blood relatives. We really have to understand who is our family. When we find out they are family, they are true blue and way important.”
However, she said there are challenges in the familial relationship she shares with Cooter and Bob. One of those is making sure everyone is pulling their own weight about chores they have to finish.
“It’s hard living under one roof,” she said. “And I am not just talking about the tent. I am talking about getting on the bus, I am talking about finding a place to stay, I am talking about what you are going to do between when that shelter is open and closed. It is all under the roof.
“We all know each other to one degree or another. We see each other all the time. It is hard to get any quiet time to yourself.”
Lori had a simple word to describe Friel: Intriguing. She said she dated him for two years.
“He was one of the strongest people I have ever known,” she said. “His weak spot was that he let people get to him. He let life get to him to the point where it finally broke him.”
However, Lori quickly came back with more praise about Friel.
“He was a free spirit in every sense of the word,” she said.
Lori said she was called in to Catholic Charities so its staff could inform her that Friel had died.
“I am just now getting over it,” she said. “Yesterday was the first time I cried. I was still in shock. He was my best friend.”
Nothing but trees and rocks can be seen from about a half-mile away.
But with every step nearer, the details begin to appear and the camouflage stretched across two trees can no longer disguise what it has been hiding. Closer still, a blue tent on a wooden platform can be seen. Then a small black chair and a cooler.
Just a couple more steps closer, and you’re in Bob’s home. He has been staying there for about six weeks.
It didn’t have to be that way for Bob, 43, who is a roofer by trade. After he recently lost his job as a framing carpenter in the area and subsequently lost his apartment, Bob could have pawned the Ibanez Artcore guitar he cherishes. He decided against that.
“This guitar made me homeless,” Bob said, holding the guitar in his lap as he sat inside his tent. “I chose to stay homeless rather than sell this.”
He then began strumming his prized possession. First there was “Over the Hills and Far Away” by Led Zeppelin. Then there was “Shine” by Collective Soul. A pile of books was next to him, a collection that included a guitar lesson guide he picked up at the library.
“I am going to learn more,” he said.
Bob’s camp is about a half-mile away from where Cooter and Lori live. While Lori and Cooter declined to show what their home was like, Bob decided to reveal his.
For the last two weeks, he has spent countless hours cleaning the site, making sure it suited him.
“This place was trashed,” said Bob, who is originally from Buffalo, N.Y.
The recent weather has made life difficult for Bob. During the recent week, he had to help Lori and Cooter after they had trouble with their tent because of the storms.
“You don’t go to sleep until you know everyone is OK,” Bob said. “I wouldn’t have a good conscience if I didn’t do that.”
Despite the cold and the snowy weather, Bob doesn’t light a fire at night. That’s because doesn’t want his location to be determined from the smoke in the sky.
“We ain’t hurting nothing,” he said. “The things we hear outside at night aren’t hurting us, either.”
Although he, Cooter, and Lori are close, there are others around Glenwood Springs who want to be left alone. Bob includes himself as part of that group.
“There are a lot of loners out there,” he said. “Don’t talk to them if they don’t want to talk to you.”
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