Wissot: Running among the homeless
It’s impossible if you are in downtown Denver, near the state capitol, by Civic Center, on the 16th Street Mall, to miss them. They are everywhere: on benches, park grass, store entrances, the Central Library grounds. They are the homeless: the
My wife, Alyn, and I split our time between Vail and Denver. We have lived in Vail Village for the past 19 years. Nine months ago, after living in the city for 40 years, we moved into a condo across from the Denver Art Museum. This column is about my observations drawn from living downtown where the homeless are as much a part of the landscape as Coors Field.
I run the downtown area daily when I am in town, sometimes during the day but mostly late at night. I find the night stimulating, invigorating, rejuvenating. I come alive in the cold air.
It is also where the homeless make their presence felt because they are who you mostly see.
The addicted, stoned, strung out are easy to spot. One look at their glazed eyes and weathered faces tell all. So too are the mentally ill. It is impossible to mistake their condition. Cursing uncontrollably at the top of their lungs about something that has to do with “mothers and sexual intercourse” causes you to instantly pick them out.
The way the homeless are treated interests me as much as they do. I have observed instances where police officers assigned to the 16th Street Mall politely and gently try to calm down a mentally-disturbed person who had made too much of a nuisance of himself to ignore. Their compassion was palpable.
There is a Sikh food truck which regularly visits the streets near the state capitol to dispense food and beverages. It is just one of many such trucks, vans, cars that constantly drop off food and clothing. The perimeter of Civic Center often resembles relief efforts after natural disasters.
A McDonald’s on Cleveland Place and the 16th Street Mall welcomes the homeless to eat and use the restrooms. They have even gone so far as to hire a formerly homeless man to both handle unruly behavior and serve as a go-between for the homeless and their families. When Benny isn’t taking his medications, this guardian angel will call his mom and ask her to bring them down.
One night while riding on a 16th Street Mall bus, I witness an extraordinary act of empathy on the part of a homeless man in a wheel chair. As he is helped on to the bus via the automated lift, I can tell he is totally inebriated. Between swigs from a bottle he utters some unintelligible words that leave me perplexed. But then another man in a wheel chair joins the bus and in an act of instinctive understanding he wheels his chair to another place on the bus so that this latest passenger could occupy the space he vacated. His drunken stupor was apparently not all encompassing.
I don’t believe anyone chooses to be homeless anymore than I think people choose to be addicts, or mentally ill, or too poor to afford a place to live. Addicts choose to take drugs; they don’t choose to become addicted. Mental illness is not something you aspire to achieve. I don’t think anyone sets as a goal moving all their belongings to the street. I think in all these instances you wake up one morning and find yourself living in a place that you didn’t expect to be.
I think it takes resilience to survive on the streets. I can’t imagine what it is like to spend your days scavenging for scraps in trash cans, urinating in public, begging for money to feed an addiction, lugging or wheeling all of your belongings from place to place, finding shelter under trees and benches on bitterly cold nights. I don’t think I am tough enough to be homeless.
To be clear, I am not romanticizing homelessness. I think it is an awful existence. I just think it may be more a problem for us than for them. We find them troubling, not the other way around. In earlier eras we would see less of them because they would be placed in debtors prisons, charged with vagrancy violations, warehoused in mental institutions. We don’t choose to hide them like that anymore. So they make the streets their home. As a police officer told me, “it is not illegal to be addicted or crazy.”
I’m not smart enough to suggest solutions to the quandary that the homeless present. I’m just a 74 year old guy who likes to run at night. Inevitably the people you run past each evening come to recognize you. There is a homeless group of men and women who are always on the corner of Broadway and Colfax. They tease me by shouting out that I should run faster. I yell back that I would if I could. We all laugh.
I sometimes wonder if they might be thinking to themselves as I lumber by at 10 at night: “And they call us crazy.” No matter. I like being among them sharing the night. We are, after all, citizens of the same city.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.