Viewing backside of Grand Junction with homeless-advocacy group
Roger’s been “a traveler” for 21 of his 33 years. That’s longer than Comfrey, another of my companions, has been alive. Somewhere in between is Jacob Richards, who kick-started Housing First/No More Deaths nearly three years ago and will lead this night’s trek to assist Grand Junction’s homeless.
I’m joining them for what turns out to be a 7-mile to 8-mile patrol, seeking out those enduring this frigid night in the nooks and crannies most residents of our town never see, but should.
At 9 p.m. we’re in a crowded living room downtown stuffing our packs with donated blankets, fire starters, hand warmers, water and packaged food. I stand out in my bright orange hunting coat, the warmest I could find after Jacob’s warning to dress for bitter cold. He’s suited up in the sort of winter garb you’d wear if you grew up in a resort town.
Comfrey’s wearing heavy leather boots and work clothes that serve him well running a chainsaw with the Western Colorado Conservation Corps. Roger’s pulling a tattered hoodie over layers of clothing that’ve seen better days, looking a lot like the folks we’ll be visiting.
We walk first through downtown, past places where experience has shown the homeless seek shelter. They’re buildings and landmarks you and I might visit during the day never knowing they do double duty after dark. On opposite sides of one historic structure are a man and a woman, both grateful for an additional blanket atop their jumble of covers. You may have seen the woman pushing her shopping cart around town.
The backside of my hometown presents itself as we walk along the railroad tracks toward the Grand Avenue bridge. A couple of sets of belongings await use later in the night. A second crew will re-check that site on their post-midnight patrol.
Just off Broadway, there’s a riverside camp. Those around the fire say they’re doing OK. Then it’s back across the bridge and through Riverside, past the house my newlywed parents rented when they first moved to Grand Junction nearly 70 years ago. Another known camp is empty this night, but I’m shown the spot where one homeless man waited two days with a broken leg before being found just a few feet from the paved trail I’ve ridden on my bike. Then it’s on through lower downtown, waving to the cop in his warm car as we wait for a coal train to clear the tracks, then checking out Whitman and Emerson parks.
This bitterly cold night, I hear about the former basketball coach whose head injury landed him out here; another homeless man who lost both feet to frostbite; the woman who died of exposure in a city park. I crouch, just a few yards from one of our prized cultural facilities, outside the tent of the woman whose mental capacity leaves her vulnerable to sexual assaults. I hand in a blanket as Jacob warms up an MRE for her evening meal.
We talk with a convenience store clerk, one of several who serve as added eyes and ears for this ragtag outreach effort. She’s taken the blanket out of the trunk of her car and given it to one of the homeless. A woman gassing up hands over some packaged pies. I wonder if she knew we’d pass them on later or, just maybe, thought we looked like we needed them ourselves.
I hear Comfrey worry about the fact that his day job will soon have him cutting some of the tamarisk and brush we’ve thrashed through, forcing several camps to relocate to God knows where in the middle of the winter. I lose count of how many times Roger calls out the code word that announces unthreatening entry into these camps, then yells “Housing First/No More Deaths, you doing OK? Need any food or blankets?”
It’s a personal question. My companions are on a first-name basis with most of those they help.
It’s after midnight when we return to the house, now more crowded as another patrol gets ready to head out. They’ll cover areas we didn’t and re-check the places our crew tagged for concern. I’m struck by the fact that these are all young people, most less than half my age.
It’s 1:30 a.m. when I crawl into the soft bed in my warm house. Others won’t sleep quite so well this night.