Homeless, but not voiceless

Jacob Richards speaks at a meeting about the homeless at Whitman Park as Sean McNeal watches and listens. Richards said he helped create the group Housing First! No More Deaths! because of the deaths of 16 homeless people during a recent harsh winter.

Spend a couple hours at Whitman Park, where some of the area’s homeless people congregate, and ask them for their thoughts about Jacob Richards.

Some bristle in defense, leery about a stranger posing questions about their ally. Who wants to know?

“Jacob’s brought no badness, just nothin’ but good,” one homeless man deadpans, his face now inches away, a whiff of alcohol on his breath and his thick, dreadlocked hair bound with silver rings.

For at least the past year, Richards has been welcomed at what most local homeless people call the “bum park” in Grand Junction, hosting Tuesday afternoon meetings where, at times, more than 50 people circle up on the grass to brainstorm issues important to homeless people. He and a cadre of others are often back again on Saturday nights, delivering free meals.

Although Richards shrugs off the leader label, his presence for years has been as the unofficial head of Grand Junction’s mostly youthful anarchist and activist following.

Several acts of civil disobedience and political protests in years past have drawn the ire of police and community leaders. A low-level misdemeanor charge stuck for Richards and four friends two years ago after the group lunged in front of a motorcade carrying then-vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin in Grand Junction. The incident added another line to Richard’s criminal record, which, more than a decade old now, includes an eight-month crime spree with other teens in 1999 that terrified Aspen residents.

But it was his questioning police authority this May that may have caused community leaders to take more notice of one of the Grand Junction Police Department’s staunchest critics. Richards filed a formal complaint that police vandalized tents and property of homeless people, and an investigation ensued. Police Chief John Camper, backed by city leaders, determined three officers had overstepped their bounds, and they summarily were fired.

“I think that really brought his credibility into the public eye,” said Karen Sjoberg, director of Grand Valley Peace and Justice, a group that lately focuses on the plight of the homeless.

“People tended to look at Housing First! No More Deaths! as a radical young group,” Sjoberg said of the organization that Richards helped create. “We didn’t know where they were getting their information. They had been telling us (about police breaking up homeless camps). It was like we didn’t want to hear it. We just wanted to sweep it under the rug. It took something like that, unfortunately, to wake us all up.”

Home base

A display rack of homemade literature, or “zines,” greets visitors to the front porch of Richards’ rented turn-of-the-century home on Ouray Avenue. Pamphlets inform people about their rights when staring down a police arrest. There are firsthand stories of hobo travels, and his group’s underground monthly newspaper, The Red Pill. July’s top story is headlined “COPS ATTACK CAMPS, CAMPER CLEANS HOUSE.”

Inside the home, stickers and posters read, “Build a wall of resistance,” “Don’t talk to the FBI,” and “GJ says no to more war.”

The communal-living home, “the collective” as it’s called, houses four roommates, but the home’s population swells as friends and acquaintances pop in and out, gathering for meetings or to use the fax machine and copier to further any number of causes.

Richards, 29, talks quickly, getting almost breathless when describing the group’s four demands, punctuated with exclamation points, that serve as the group’s stated mission statement:

No More Deaths!

Housing First, Housing Now!

Homelessness is not Illegal!

Food, water, health care and housing are basic human rights!

“We take offense to the status that it’s legal to live inside a house, but not outside,” he said, one leg bobbing while seated barefoot at the home’s 1950s-era living-room table. “If someone has no place to go, they’re still going to poop and pee somewhere even if we don’t like it.”

Richards tucks his curly, shoulder-length hair underneath his baseball cap. He doesn’t keep a cell phone, making ample use of the home’s landline to remind friends about meetings or to organize events. There’s not a television in sight.

In 2005, he said, police would periodically break up homeless camps without warning, but that practice changed after “having a reporter coming in asking questions,” he said.

Now homeless people camped on city or private property are given notice about the “cleanups,” he said.

Richards was a Mesa State College student and working a stint at Homeward Bound, the North Avenue homeless shelter, when he flung himself headlong into the homeless cause.

He said he pitched several stories about homeless issues to The Daily Sentinel and The Grand Junction Free Press and barely received more than a nibble. Undaunted, Richards took his notebook into camps, the soup kitchen, bars, the library and the “bum park” and interviewed homeless people where he could find them, and he chronicled his findings in a self-published “zine” titled, “Freedom & Oppression: Homelessness and the Grand Valley.”

“Radical culture has much in common with homeless culture,” Richards wrote in his study, alluding to his own motivations. “Both groups, roll their own tobacco, both groups regularly hop freight trains, hitchhike, dumpster dive, squat and both groups are usually broke, working only sporadically. ... it allowed for a primordial class consciousness shared by my informants and myself.”

Lately, Richards is hard to pin down, spending hours each week attending any number of meetings that address homeless issues, a cause he’s focused on, alongside an increasing number of local nonprofit leaders.

Richards said he and fellow activist Mallory Rice created Housing First! No More Deaths! because they were frustrated after 16 homeless people — some of whom were turned away from shelters for drinking — died on the streets in Grand Junction after an especially brutal winter in 2008.

“What our group is doing is keeping the issue hot, something that needs to be done,” Richards said.

‘Privileged, rich kid’

The son of an Aspen career politician, Richards is sometimes described in blog postings and in the Internet rumor mill as “privileged” or a “rich kid.”

As privileged, perhaps, as anyone who grew up in Aspen could be when exposed to the bigger world. Even Richards recalls meeting Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia and seeing Hunter S. Thompson at gatherings. His mother, Rachel, said she saved up for her son to enroll in ski club, and he was a competitive mountain biker.

An only child, Jacob grew up mostly with his mom, Rachel, who often played the role of single parent. She purchased an affordable housing unit, a 740-square-foot, two-bedroom space, with Jacob sleeping on a bed in the living room, creating a makeshift closet off the kitchen to contain his things.

As Jacob grew up, his father often took his son on hunting and camping expeditions, Rachel said, instilling a sense of environmental awareness in their son.

Jacob related easily to adults. But he also got along well with children, even those much younger than him, Rachel said, and at parties for adults he could be found acting as a baby sitter, reading to or entertaining kids.

“He was always very caring,” she said.

Path to prison

What happened when Jacob turned 18 horrified his family and cast a pall of fear over the affluent, mountain town.

Described by some residents as a summer of terror, Richards was one of 11 youths who in 1999 were linked to crimes including home burglaries, theft of cash from businesses and the holdup of a grocery store at gunpoint.

Richards’ role included using a key to break into an Aspen home where he had worked and stealing three double-barrelled shotguns. He and three friends then helped themselves to a Toyota Range Rover in the garage during the Sept. 20, 1999, incident, according to Richards’ arrest affidavit.

The four had arrived at the home in the Twining Flats subdivision in a stolen Jeep Laredo rental vehicle, and they stole the Range Rover after they decided they needed two vehicles to sell at a “chop shop” in Denver. They planned to go to Boulder and spend the night with friends before selling the vehicles the next day, the affidavit said.

A traffic stop in Boulder the next day put a kink in those plans. Richards was a passenger in the Jeep, being driven by Nathan Morse, when their vehicle was pulled over in Boulder by a police officer. Morse handed the officer his driver’s license, and the officer soon determined the vehicle had been stolen. But Morse drove away from the scene, dumped the car and fled. Police found the vehicle later, the affidavit said.

About an hour later, Morse called police and turned himself in. Morse told police about the burglary in Aspen and said it was the idea of his passenger, Jacob Richards, to flee from police.

The Aspen Police Department obtained a warrant for Richards arrest, and he was jailed Sept. 24. Richards later was charged with two counts of first-degree aggravated car theft, second-degree burglary of a building, theft of between $500 and $15,000 and conspiracy to commit armed robbery. Accepting a plea agreement, Richards pleaded guilty to the single burglary charge, and the rest of the charges were dropped. He was sentenced to four years in prison.

At the time of Richards’ arrest, his mother was the mayor, and furious letters to the editor in local newspapers called for her resignation. Rachel Richards lost her subsequent re-election bid.

“I still feel it was my fault,” Jacob Richards said.

Like any parent, Richards immediately wondered where she had gone wrong. She didn’t bond her son out of Pitkin County Jail, partly because she couldn’t afford the bail. Jacob Richards waited for three months in jail while his case played out and many of his co-conspirators walked free, Rachel said.

“He took responsibility,” she said. “He was willing to talk (to police) about whatever he knew about. I told him, ‘Just tell the truth, and that’s it.’ “

Inviting scrutiny

Jacob Richards refers to that time in his life as a “summer of bad decisions,” a time when he wanted to show off in front of his friends. He said he came out of prison a better person.

Rachel Richards said she is proud that her son is willing to continue to stand up for what he thinks is right, knowing it could invite scrutiny.

“He knows that stepping into this position and filing a complaint, it’s going to bring up his past,” she said.

Jacob Richards served a little more than a year in prison and was allowed to finish his sentence in community corrections in Grand Junction. He enrolled in Mesa State College and started The Red Pill.

Richards said he has no plans to move back to Aspen, or move to another more progressive area than Grand Junction, saying he can get more done in a conservative stronghold.

“What am I going to do in Boulder?” he said. “Everybody and their mom is an activist there. I want to stay somewhere where it’s easier to make a difference. In Boulder you’re just another lefty group in a field of lefties.”

Face of homelessness

Richards graduated from Mesa State with a major in anthropology and a minor in political science. He works as a cook at a local restaurant, one of Grand Junction’s finest, but he asked that its name not be used, preferring to separate his work from his activist lifestyle.

“Mayor Teresa Coons saw me there one day, and she said, ‘I didn’t realize you worked,’ ” Richards said with obvious amusement. “Forty hours a week. You’d be amazed at how little organizing a group pays.”

Richards said he saw the progress he and his group had forged when the Grand Junction City Council last summer shot down an ordinance that would have banned panhandling. During that June 2009 hearing about the issue, Richards helped pack City Council chambers with dozens of homeless people, some who waved signs proclaiming, “It’s not illegal to be homeless.”

Richards distributes a lengthy, bullet-pointed list of ideas to improve the plight of Grand Junction’s homeless population. Some of those ideas are:

A 24-hour drop-in shelter for homeless.

A shelter for those who drink alcohol or do drugs.

More low-income housing.

Opening an unused building to use as shelter during extreme weather.

Change the laws that target the homeless and alter how being homeless is depicted in the media, suggesting the term “transient” or “homeless” be changed to “houseless.”

Affordable housing shouldn’t cost more than $200–$300 a month.

Ticketing or jailing homeless people for sleeping in the park or urinating in public costs taxpayers more in the long run than helping house the homeless.

Local leaders have tried to address homelessness for years, but Richards lately attends meetings flanked by a few homeless people, something that hasn’t happened before.

“He helps people on the street feel empowered,” said John Mok-Lamme, director of the nonprofit Karis, which is working on solutions to homelessness. “I’ve noticed that since they’ve been advocating, things have moved quicker. They have made it easier to listen to homeless people.”

Community groups are working on a 10-year-plan to end homelessness in the Grand Valley, a movement which is building momentum on the city and state government levels.

Holding protests, organizing rallies and fighting the system is not the way to make long-term change to keep people off the streets, said Beverly Lampley, the director of housing at Catholic Outreach of the Grand Valley. Lampley works with hundreds of homeless people, offering some financial assistance and housing, but the majority of the Grand Valley’s homeless are not “on the street holding a sign,” she said. It includes families living in motels or sleeping in their cars or on friends’ couches.

“I’m not one to picket,” she said. “This is a social issue with a hard answer. We’re not going to solve it in the street.”

By some indications, the homeless problem in Grand Junction is only getting worse. Homeward Bound’s North Avenue shelter, which primarily was created for the homeless to escape winter’s brutal temperatures, now fills up during the summer months. The Catholic Outreach soup kitchen daily serves more than 160 dinners and up to 300 people at lunch. A shelter overflow program to house the homeless in churches during the winter months has doubled, and more church floors are likely needed this year.

At first, Richards’ more radical style of seeking change wasn’t welcome among the mainstream homeless-service providers, Lampley said. That has changed as Richards’ methods have mellowed, and overall he and his group have at least heightened the awareness of homelessness, she said.

“I get a sense that his heart is in the right place,” she said. “He’s the next generation of activists in the homeless cause. He’s matured; we’re all getting older. When you really do want change, you learn what works.”

Philosophy clash

Grand Junction Police Chief John Camper said he and Richards have an “open line of communication” and share concerns about homeless issues. There, they part ways.

“Jacob Richards believes that they’re citizens, and they have the right to be there (in the park and camping). We disagree,” Camper said. “Transients have an impact on quality of life. We all want to have an impact on the transient problem and reduce the number of transients that we have, and clearly there’s going to be disagreements with how we get there.”

Camper said his department had to weigh Richards’ credibility and motivation after he filed the formal complaint against police officers, accusing them of destroying homeless people’s property, such as tents and bicycle tires.

“Unfortunately, the allegations were substantiated,” Camper said.

Camper said he knew it would be a show of validation to deliver replacement tents to Richards’ door. However, he reasoned, Richards would best know how to find those people again, and the gesture was “still the right thing to do,” Camper said.

“If he were to get arrested for some crime or does some really outrageous protest, it would be hard for us to trust him,” Camper said. “We’d certainly be reluctant to work with him. He’s been playing nice. For now, it’s a tolerant, working relationship.”

Richards agrees his relationship with the Police Department has become more civil. But he won’t back down on future protests or media campaigns if he feels the police are abusing their power. He points to a list of officers being fired or resigning in the past two years over various controversies. Richards’ handprints are also on a blog, gjpdexposed.wordpress.com, another tool in his activist bag.

“It’s not like we’re going to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya,” Richards said of the Police Department. “I wouldn’t say the police are on our side. They are looking at homelessness with new eyes. They’ve been messing up like crazy this year. We will keep them accountable.”

Politics of activism

As Pitkin County’s liaison for Club 20 events since the late 1990s, Rachel Richards, a Democrat, has fielded questions and criticism about her son’s actions, such as the incident with Palin’s motorcade. Officers maintained that pulling the protesters from in front of the moving vehicles also endangered their lives.

“That really made us look like asses,” Jacob Richards agreed.

In town earlier this year, Rachel Richards said she was surprised when her son didn’t have much time to spend with her and that an antiviolence trainer was showing up at the collective. She decided to go along, thinking the session would be about self-defense for women or something like that. Instead, it was training on how not to get injured while protesting. The group had been planning a tax-day sit-in outside U.S. Rep. John Salazar’s local office.

“He makes me look right of center,” she said. “He doesn’t really support either party but sees both being different sides of the same coin. You have to have people willing to stir the pot or turn up the heat to a boil. He’s an equal-opportunity protester. It’s not my technique, but I admire him for sticking up for his convictions.”

Jacob Richards cringes at being called a leader. But on the back porch of his home, a small crowd has gathered, and all eyes are on him as he stands and gestures, continuing on about his stance.

“People worked really hard to elect Obama, and now they feel disillusioned,” he said. “Young people are more interested in our style of politics. If I see something unjust, I’m going to stand up.

“I used to tell my mom I was never going to be in politics. Sure as (crap), I’m in politics.”


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