Homeless dying in the High Country

Jeremy Heiman
Post Independent Photo/Jim Noelker Friends of Tommy Gagner, a Glenwood Springs resident who died recently, throw carnation into the Roaring Fork River at Veltus Park in rememberance of their friend.

Tommy Gagner had a lot of friends. That’s what everyone said. And it was evident at an informal memorial service held for him last week at a Glenwood Springs park.

Gagner, a homeless man, died May 2 of liver failure at Valley View Hospital, after he was found vomiting blood on the railroad tracks in West Glenwood.

In recent months, he lived near the tracks on the south side of the Colorado River, in a place his friends knew as “Tommytown,” said Steve Pollard, deputy coroner for Garfield County.

Close to 30 of those friends showed up for the memorial, some with dogs, some with guitars, to tell stories about Tommy’s life and to sing a few of Tommy’s favorite songs.

Pastor Bernie Masimer of Sonlight Foursquare Gospel Church led the group in prayer and started off the eulogies, praising Gagner for his easy way with people. Masimer’s speech was followed by a round of hugs and shouts, with many in the crowd imitating Gagner’s gravelly voice.

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One acquaintance told the crowd about Gagner grilling food for a group of friends at Sayre Park. Gagner, who at one time cooked professionally, hadn’t lost his touch, even in the grip of advanced alcoholism.

“Tommy could do some cooking,” the man said. “You’d swear he was too drunk to cook, but it would come out perfect every time.”

“I guess one of the most important things I could say about Tommy is he had respect for everybody,” said Lowell Haag, a flooring installer who sometimes hires Glenwood’s homeless.

Help is scarce

There was an undercurrent of bitterness in the crowd, though, about Gagner’s death. Nick Petmezas, known as “Mountain Man Nick,” said there is a tragic lack of help and support for people with advanced alcohol problems and homelessness.

“I think [Gagner’s death] should be thought of as a testament to alcohol-assisted suicide,” Petmezas said, sarcastically.”It’s sad there’s no good system here. There’s no money for a place for people who need help, and, damn it, that’s wrong.”

Petmezas said there’s a disproportionate number of homeless in and around Glenwood Springs. They are attracted here by the beauty, the rivers, the mountains and the hot springs that dot the Colorado River throughout the town, he said.

“Tommy loved it here. He was here for the same reason the rich people from California come here,” Petmezas said. “It’s a magic, beautiful valley. It’s a magic, spiritual place to die, too. It’s a good place to die.”

Glenwood Springs does have a few opportunities for indigent people. Karolyn Spencer, a former employee of the Salvation Army, recently started what she calls a drop-in center, serving coffee and cold breakfasts to homeless people in a room in the Silver Spruce Motel.

Spencer’s effort is supported by the Western Slope Mission of the Southern Baptist Church, and receives funding from churches of many denominations from New Castle to Aspen. Spencer said the permanent homeless population around Glenwood Springs is 30 to 50 people.

“Most of these guys are homeless guys that have lived in the valley for many, many years,” she said.

The homeless population grows to a as many as 100 in summer, with seasonal workers and what she calls “plain old transients.”

Disability leads to homelessness

Petmezas, who said he’s sleeping in a cave near town, claimed that although Glenwood Springs has more homeless people than Grand Junction, Grand Junction has a homeless shelter and Glenwood Springs does not.

His own homelessness is a result of disability, Petmezas said, but he may die homeless, too. A former carpet installer, he said he’s unable to work in that profession because of two bad knees.

“Seven years ago, I made $57,000. Now I’m homeless,” he said.

But he can’t collect Social Security benefits, because doctors have said he’s not completely unfit to work. He also has emphysema, which prevents him from doing strenuous work such as construction, and suffered a stroke about a year ago, he said.

“I’m dying too,” Petmezas said. “I know what it’s about.”

And when people die with few or no assets, the question arises as to who makes arrangements for burial, and who pays.

Deputy Coroner Pollard, who is also a funeral director at Farnum Holt Funeral Home, said Gagner may have living relatives, but county officials don’t know how to contact them.

Pollard said Farnum Holt is also holding the body of an unidentified homeless man who died Feb. 2. He was living under an assumed name, and had a phony Social Security card, so attempts to identify him have only led to dead ends.

When the was admitted to Valley View Hospital, he refused to give the names of next of kin, Pollard said, so he will probably be given a respectful, anonymous funeral.

“It’s heartbreaking to know there are people who probably loved this man, and we can’t contact them,” Pollard said.

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