He lives behind the dumpster of a restaurant astride my apartment, next to a heap of wet blankets and a cane. The landscape betrays his alcoholism. Hundreds of aluminum cans lie strewn about the hill underneath his camp, a few haplessly drowning in the gutter. Usually he wakes before I do, except on the exceptionally cold days where he stays beneath his blankets. Most mornings I wave hello to him and say good morning, and most days he does the same.
His eyes are black, each pupil merging seamlessly with its iris – much like a horror film character’s after a demonic possession – but his warm smile reassures one that this isn’t the case. His face is wrinkled, but not sagging. It hides behind a thick, unkempt beard, the same dirty blonde as his hair, which is tucked neatly into the hood of his jacket. It’s thick and black, but I’m sure it’s not warm enough on the harsh or windy days. Nothing is.
He sleeps not twenty feet from the train tracks. I complain about the noise, but I have a parking lot and a wall separating me from the rumbling of the wheels and the blaring of the horn. I’m sure he wakes in a cold sweat as the lights bear down through his blankets and the whistle echoes shrill through the foothills. Today, as I was crossing the tracks, I saw him sitting, as he always does, with a comforter draped over his shoulders.
“Morning,” I waved, smiling as I continued on.
“Good morning!” he responded, his eyes shifting their focus from the morning skies to me.
His voice was harsh and gruff, but friendly, like a mall Santa who had just finished smoking a pack of American Spirits on his lunch break. It rose from deep within his voice box, rolling a bit from the phlegm that coated the inside of his throat.
“Guess what?” he barked, uncharacteristically.
I paused for a moment, expecting no more than the usual greeting.
“It’s cold! The wind chill factor is …” he trailed off. “You know what though?”
“That sunrise was beautiful. What are you doing this morning?”
I’m sure it was beautiful. I could still see the remnants of it painted across the sky, a few pastel orange and purple streaks amidst the grey that indicated snow might be on its way. A tree behind the man shivered in the cold, the last of its leaves chattering like teeth.
“Oh, I’m just headed to work.”
“Well, hey, at least you’ll be retired one day.”
“Yeah,” I laughed.
“Where you work at?”
“Pretty far from here, all the way on the South side of town. I take the bus every day.”
“It’s a good bus system, you know? I voted for it.”
“Yeah, it’s a good system.”
My bus was pulling up behind. I wanted to keep talking to the man, but he seemed to understand before I did.
“Your bus is here!” he pointed.
“So it is. I have to go, it was nice talking to you.”
I turned and ran, knowing I’d have to scale the fence to board in time.
“You have a good holiday!” he called out behind me.
“You too, I’ll see you later,” I called back.
Homelessness has become an increasingly discussed issue in Fort Collins, especially after the decommissioning of Jefferson Park, a popular gathering spot for the homeless. The tracks near the park were recently cleaned up by police, citing misuse of railroad ties to create temporary shelters. Similar tactics have been used in Denver to remove homeless people from the city; police often gather up and dispose of their belongings, tell them they must move, or cite them. In some cases, contact is made to attempt to house people through various programs, like in the case of Lyle Moomaw, but often the main goal of programs is to move homeless people out of the city, resulting in congregations of them outside of city limits, such as by the South Platte River or other places out of view. While city officials maintain this is not the purpose of sweeps, those being relocated tell a different story, exposing the underlying policy goals of gentrification and relocation of low income individuals.
The shift in population demonstrates that sweeps of the area around Samaritan House shelter on Lawrence Street have done little more than remove some homeless from public view. – Ray Lyall
Similar policies continue in Fort Collins, criminalizing homelessness. The city currently bans camping in public spaces, resulting in citations and mass evictions, such as the one at a campsite by Lee Martinez Park. The City Council pulled a discussion about the city’s camping ban from its agenda, without rescheduling it. Increasingly, policies are no longer targeting a class of behavior, but a class of people, a problem which unfairly paints the homeless with a broad brush.
Law enforcement points to issues like crime and drug abuse which have increased in recent years, as evidenced by increasing incarceration rates and many jails which have reached capacity. They typically admit, however, that most of these crimes are committed by transients rather than those endemic to the community. As more and more homeless travel through Fort Collins, crime increases. Solutions, however, seem to focus on those living in the community rather than the larger safety risk posed by those who do not reside here permanently, indicating that reducing crime is not the main purpose of raids on homeless communities.
This is something that the homeless community in Fort Collins has noticed, as well. Many of them opt out of shelters or other temporary residences because conditions are poor and overcrowded, and altercations often turn violent or result in lost possessions due to transients. Individuals like Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith agree that the problem is not with homeless people but instead criminals that happen to be homeless, or transients passing through.
The ones we’re dealing with aren’t simply homeless people. They are criminals who move here without anywhere to live. – Justin Smith
Lieutenant Jeremy Yonce with Fort Collins Police notes similar concerns, claiming that homelessness is not, and has never been, the problem.
Criminality is divorced from the act of being homeless, but the small percentage of homeless troublemakers become “front and center” of public concerns. – Jeremy Yonce
Rising numbers of incarcerations may also be due to increased police presence in the city, meaning that petty crimes often committed by homeless individuals (such as urinating in public) are more often found and punished. These are not cases of people intentionally committing crimes, rather they are cases of people being unfairly punished for an unchosen lifestyle that is seen as dirty or unappealing by others.
Many illegal behaviors end up being illegal by virtue of being done in public. – Lynn Thompson
While the homeless are not any more violent than others, they are often unfairly targeted by policies which are intended to reduce the number of violent crimes. In fact, according to one study [PDF] by the American non profit NLCHP, the homeless actually commit violent or property damaging crimes at a lower rate than housed individuals. Despite these facts, however, public outcry and stereotyping tend to win out when policy decisions are made, and homeless groups are inappropriately targeted. Gentrification and fear tend to be the primary motivators of policy making and public opinion, meaning homeless people – instead of receiving the support they need, or being allowed exceptions for camping overnight – are instead outcast, hated, and forgotten about.
I encourage all of you to speak out in your communities, especially those of you living in areas where homelessness has become a hot issue. Reach out to your policy makers and city council and ask what is being done to solve issues like homelessness in your community. Encourage policies which reach out to the homeless and help them get on their feet, and discourage those which target them with police forces and fear campaigns.
But more importantly, speak to them. Help them know they aren’t alone, and that they’re still human. Say good morning to them as you walk by. Ask them how their day is going. I’ve written in the past about how people in the West, especially Americans, are starving for social interaction. The homeless are over 9 times more likely [PDF] to commit suicide than the general population, and loneliness is one of the primary risk factors associated with this behavior. There is a strong link between suicide and weakened social ties, something with which the homeless are constantly confronted, and something you as a citizen can combat. And who knows, you might even stop to enjoy a nice sunrise.