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The places I slept while homeless, mentally ill

From a lean-to under a railroad bridge to Union Station, Denver unsafe for those sleeping outside

By David HeitzPublished 2 years ago 5 min read
Mihaly Koles/Unsplash

When you’re homeless, you’re lucky if you can get any sleep at all.

Cops run you off when you fall sleep on park benches. Lie down somewhere covered with a blanket, like in a park, and you’re violating the camping ordinance and can get a ticket. At least that’s how it worked in Denver when I experienced homelessness.

Fall asleep in a public place like a bus or train station and you’re likely to be ripped off. Smart homeless people put their backpack around their feet when they sleep.

Some places, like Union Station, employ security guards. They harass people experiencing homelessness by banging their keys against the metal benches when a person falls asleep. They wake them up and tell them to move along if they’re not catching a train or bus.

First stop, Union Station

JJ Shev/Unsplash

Denver’s streets are dangerous. Many people experiencing homelessness are dangerous.

So where does a person go to sleep?

The first couple of weeks after I became homeless, I would sit all night at Union Station. I had no idea where the shelters or the feeds were. In my delusional mind, the federal government was going to “save” me from homelessness. You know how paranoid people often think the federal government is out to get them? I thought the federal government was protecting me. That’s a long, strange story for another day.

Union Station in 2019 was and still is incredibly dangerous. Drugs abound inside and out. People experiencing homelessness seem to rule the roost. The security guards used to allow several thugs to shoot up drugs in the restroom and harass people. It became unsafe to use the restroom, which defeated the purpose of sitting all night at Union Station.

Denver has almost no public restrooms. Private businesses require you buy something to use the toilet. The bottom line is there is hardly anywhere for people using homelessness to use the restroom. Human feces now dot the streets downtown.

Shelters smelled vile

LIam Riby/Unsplash

After Union Station became too scary for me, someone told me about the shelters. I gave them a try. I found the homeless shelters incredibly disgusting. People would smear feces on the toilet seats. Everyone smelled like body odor and dirty feet. Bugs would crawl out of cracks in the floor at a Salvation Army shelter where I stayed.

Many people in the shelters would stay up all night. Some would make noise and disturb the others. I found the stench so appalling I could barely fall asleep.

Eventually someone picked a fight with me at the shelter. I occasionally was picked on for being gay. When I reported it, the shelter banned me. The same thing happened again at another shelter. So, after a few short months, I had no shelter where I could stay. I tried to stay at some of the other smaller shelters, but never got called in the “lottery,” which is how some shelters work.

Encampment filthy, dangerous

Ralph Leue/Unsplash

For a while after the shelters kicked me out, I stayed in an encampment in the parking lot of the Salvation Army. I slept on an old couch that had been dumped there. Shanty town tents were all around me, as were piles of garbage. The reason encampments become so filthy is because garbage collection is not provided.

You would think in a city with a severe homelessness problem, trash cans would be plentiful. But if you put out a trash can you must empty it. That takes city workers. Trash cans can be few and far between in many parts of Denver.

In Denver and across the country, cities are installing park benches with dividers. That way, people experiencing homelessness cannot lie down.

After a while I met someone who had their own camping spot. Willie lived under a railroad bridge on a bluff along the Platte River. An Army veteran, Willie invited me to stay with him. I took him up on it.

Sleeping under a railroad bridge was impossible for me, but somehow Willie did it. Every so often the train would come roaring above us. Willie always told me to be quiet and not to go outside and pee when the trains passed. Sometimes I couldn’t hold it and would wet my pants. Holding your urine is even tougher when you’re sleeping outdoors in the cold.

The camp was a structure with a blanket for a door. One especially cold night, a goose wandered into our hideaway to get warm. He sat just a few feet from us in the dark. Try to fall asleep under a railroad bridge in tiny lean-to you’re sharing with a goose.

Under the bridge

Loren Bisor/Unsplash

But staying under the railroad bridge didn’t last long. One night a man came busting through a wall my roommate had erected. He had a pickaxe. He called us a derogatory Spanish word for gay and brandished the axe.

I got out of there as fast as I could. Willie stayed to fight. To me it wasn’t worth it.

So, I ended up back in the parking lot of the Salvation Army again. That didn’t last longer either. One day another homeless person picked a fight with me. We wrestled and he hurt my neck bad. I left the encampment that day after never returned.

But I didn’t go far. I started sleeping along the Platte River. One night I fell asleep on a hill of red ants. Ironically, I slept hard that night. But I woke up with ant stings all over my back. The spot otherwise was idyllic, situated along some rapids.

Eventually I got arrested while covered up with a blanket along the side of the Platte River bicycle trail. The police said I was violating the camping ordinance. When I tried to walk away, they tackled me. I was taken to Denver Health before they took me to jail. At the hospital, doctors worked on my face for two hours. The police officers who arrested me spared no mercy.

My degree didn’t prevent homelessness

Cole Keister/Unsplash

Getting arrested was the best thing that could have happened to me. It got me off the dangerous streets.

Eventually I was taken from jail to the state mental hospital in Pueblo. A judged deemed me “incompetent to proceed” on a charge of assault on a peace officer. The charge was absurd given I was the one taken to the hospital. I never was convicted of the charge.

The hospital in Pueblo kept me for about a year. Once on medication, I improved quickly.

After Pueblo I ended up in housing owned by Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. I’m still there, and I pay quite a bit for rent, which is based on my income. I am doing well as a freelance writer, but you never know how long the good gigs will last.

People say the homeless don’t want housing, that they prefer living off the grid. I can tell you that never applied to me.

I prayed every night to find a safe space to sleep. I would have gone back to the shelters if I could have.

If you’re a person who despises people experiencing homelessness, be careful not to assign stereotypes. I've had a successful journalism career and once lived in a penthouse. I have a degree from a highly selective, Lutheran, Swedish, liberal arts college. People don’t expect graduates of Augustana College to ever end up homeless.

But it happened to me. And I’ll never judge another homeless person ever again.


About the Creator

David Heitz

I am a journalist with more than 30 years' experience. Here at Vocal, I write mainly for Potent, Vocal's cannabis magazine. I have a PTSD diagnosis and a medical cannabis card. I have lived in a penthouse and also experienced homelessness.

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