I feel really bad when I see people standing at street lights with signs that ask for food or money. They just stand there in the hot sun, usually looking dirty, sunburned, silent, and hopeless. Whenever it happens, I remember a time I was in California with my parents, and we had a bunch of leftover hamburgers from Jack in the Box. This was the 90s, and they sold a large burger with lettuce and tomato for just .99. Being from New Jersey, we were astounded. McDs and BK did not give you lettuce and tomato on their regular burgers. I think the Value Menu didn’t even exist yet so .99 was also a coup.
As a result, we overbought, and, on impulse, my mom handed the bag to a young man with a sign at a light. He was probably in his 20s, wearing jeans, and she summed it up with, “He looked thin.” He did. Closer to gaunt, in that tall, lean way that is popular for rockers now. Who knows if he was just a 90s hipster, or a drug-addict, or a generic undesirable, or maybe he was whatever we define as an ‘acceptable’, 'legitimate’ homeless person these days. I don’t know, I never will, and I really never wonder.
Denver has these people. In New York, I’ve grown immune to them, because I fear scam artists, but it seems truer in the bright light and dust of Colorado. They’re frequently immigrants. Sometimes the sign says they’re looking for work.
What’s odd is that I wasn’t just an observer, separated from these people as I might be in NYC. There, people with signs stay in one place - the subway, a station, a street - and I am moving through it, past them, away. They always park in a transient location, a place where people are never meant to linger, to maximize their exposure. In Denver, I guess that’s not so convenient. I’d ride with the destitute on the bus or stand with them at the lightrail station, but the difference is that they were going somewhere. They were not a fixture or some gritty scenery that I passed. They had a destination and a life.
This is not meant to be a paeon to “homeless people are people to”, but to the oddity of what this experience uncovers. On the bus, in a poor part of town (ironically, we were coming home from the zoo that was my previous donation), I stood in the front next to a woman with a cart that had a cardboard sign on it, proclaiming her status as a veteran. The cart was full of the usual things - plastic bags, blankets, etc, but she herself seemed in her early 40s, with curly blonde hair, decent clothes, and clean skin. It was perplexing. Someone, perhaps similarly disbelieving of her appearance paired with her claim, asked her what wars she had been in, and she said something like she had been in Vietnam, the Gulf, and more, as a Navy Seal, a Marine, etc. Too many wars, too many different branches. It was just not believable, and yet she seemed completely lucid. There was none of the passion and bravado and drunkenness that a liar usually employs to cover up their falsehoods. I wasn’t sure if she was just that convinced of her delusions or so tired at the end of the day that wasn’t going to bother making her act convincing. I suppose there’s a far-off chance she was telling the truth but it seems incredibly unlikely.
Why am I talking about a scam artist among a blog about giving money to charity? Why not? It’s reality. It happens. The way you escape it, I think, is to always give to organizations who had the knowledge and connections to give resources to the right people. The people in the shelter know who their regulars are. They know who has alcohol problems, psychological problems, who just hit some bad luck. I put my trust in them.
Regardless, it was an odd experience, but the net of it, and the other experiences I had in Denver, impressed the idea of homelessness on my mind. Accordingly, I donated to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. They not only serve urban areas, but rural ones, too, where work has run out and there’s not as much of a community safety net. I’ve driven through the tiny mountain towns and wide open spaces of the state, and I am glad an organization is thinking about the people out there. I bet it gets lonely.
So, $50 for an organization that consistently builds affordable housing in Denver and helps people get back on their feet. Good luck. Love your city.