Lawrence Street Community Center Posts

Faces of the Mission :: John

JOHN

“I just got out of prison; I did three and a half years,” says John. “I came to Denver to do ironwork, and because I’m a big Peyton Manning fan. I tried to get here before he retired, but they wouldn’t let me out of prison, and I couldn’t escape.”

John laughs, but he’s serious—not about the escaping prison part, he wouldn’t do that. But he’s serious about the Peyton Manning part; John came here because he loves Peyton.

“I went to Indianapolis and saw some games when he played there. I wanted to see him in Denver, but he retired before I could get here.”

His dream to see Peyton play one more time is gone, and John knows that. But he’s got other goals, better goals.

“Now that I’m here, I want to get a job and a place and get back on my feet. I go to work on Monday. A guy told me he’d give me a job doing ironwork.”

He reaches into his pocket, pulls out his phone and scrolls through his photo album.

“This is the work I do,” he says. “This one is of me in Idaho, eight stories. This one is in Savannah, Georgia. And this one is in Seattle, Washington; it was only three stories.”

He’s showing me selfies of him standing at the top of buildings that he helped construct. He’s smiling at the camera, and I can’t help but laugh. Everything about the man sitting in front of me is pleasant. He talks like a true southern man — straightforward and unhurried. He jokes and smiles, laughs and even cries.

“How does a man like you become homeless,” I ask.

John puts his hands on the table. He glances out the window and stares into the distance. I can’t be sure what John’s looking for, or at. He nods his head as if to affirm my assumption—that a man like him doesn’t belong here, on the street, homeless, without a family or a job.

“Most of us men out there are taught to be dominant, an alpha male. My wife didn’t like that; she thought I was harsh, not toward our kids, but toward her. I wasn’t trying to be that way. I was trying to be the leader. I got depressed, and when I get depressed, I turn to alcohol, and then I get behind the wheel and drive. That’s what sent me to prison.”

John reaches for his phone, again. “I don’t show too many people these, so …”

His voice fades with the smell of his lukewarm coffee. He scrolls through his photo album, and this time he pulls up pictures of his children. “I haven’t seen them in years,” he says. “All I want is to be with them, again. But I messed up; I drank too much. I acted like I was on top of the world, and I did everything I shouldn’t have done.”

I haven’t seen John again since the day I interviewed him back in March. I can’t be sure where he’s at, and I’d like to suggest that he’s doing well, on his way to overcoming his alcoholism and mending relationships with his children. But I don’t know those things.

As we walked back to the Lawrence Street Community Center that day, John said, “Hopefully there won’t be any more roadblocks for me; hopefully I get to see my kids.”

Faces of The Mission is a blog series written by Jordan Smith, Denver Rescue Mission’s Writer/Editor/Photographer, offering insights and real-life stories from people experiencing homelessness and hardships.

Faces of the Mission :: Lori

Lori Sometimes people make statements that aren’t true. They say things like, “I’m good” when in fact they aren’t well. These are the statements often heard in passing, as one walks by acquaintances and colleagues in the office or the hallway.

It was mid-afternoon on a Friday when Jennifer and I walked by Lori, who was seated at a table inside the courtyard at the Lawrence Street Community Center. Jennifer has a contagious personality, one that often lends itself to laughter and long conversations.

“How are you?” asked Jennifer.

Lori turned toward Jennifer and me, her back to the table. “I’ve had better days,” she said.

Lori isn’t one to make cordial conversation, the type that people expect in passing, at least. Her words reveal more truth than that, and so does her story.

“When I was eight years old my mom married a pedophile,” said Lori. “He not only abused me, he also got my brother, my cousin and the girl up the street. And those are just the ones I know about.”

As she told about her childhood, Lori did so with a sense of peace; not like the type of peace a person experiences during meditation. It was a different kind of peace, less reflective and more of a graceful confidence.

Lori 2To this day, I struggle to understand where Lori’s peacefulness comes.

I think back to my own story. My childhood was different than most. I was born with a birth defect. As a kid, I endured surgery after surgery after surgery, so many that I lost count after the eighth. None of my friends could relate to the feeling, to the anxiety and the fear that comes with being operated on as a child. I navigated those experiences with the help of my family. But Lori’s childhood was more than just different, it was wrong and it was traumatic and the trauma came at the hands of her abusers, people she knew and people she called family.

Yet, as she sat there in front of me on that Friday, she told her story with grace. Few people would dare criticize Lori if she had thoughts of rage and even vengeance. “I don’t look back with anger or regret,” she said. “It happened. It was bad. And it made me who I am.”

Of course, she doesn’t understand a lot of things about her past; like when those police officers, the ones who listened to eight-year-old Lori tell her story—of how she was running around the house in her pajamas and then was raped by her step-dad—replied, “You shouldn’t have seduced him by being in your pajamas.”

When I asked Lori what she would say to those officers today, her eyebrows raised to the middle of her forehead, she put her hand on the table in front of her as if to provide herself with support, support that the younger Lori was often without, and she said, “I have a lot of choice words for those people.”

And when asked what she might say to her mom, Lori struggled to find the right words. She has a fondness for her mom, an empathy that I can’t fathom.

“I don’t know what I would say to my mom. It was her worldview,” said Lori. “She was brought up to please the man. Back then, if you didn’t please the man, you deserved what you got. I’m not saying that’s right, but that’s what they taught us. It was the 60’s and 70’s. Till the day she died my mother was taught, and believed, that men do no wrong. One time, after my ex got a hold of me, she took me to her house. When the police finished photographing my bruises, you know what she asked me? She didn’t ask me how I was or if I was okay, she asked, ‘what did you do to antagonize him?’”

When she said those words, her face softened, she peered down toward the table in front of her, but only for a moment. She lifted her eyes up at Jennifer. “I have empathy where a lot of people don’t have it,” she said.

And then she told a story about her daughter and how difficult it is to keep a child safe in the world. As her kids were growing, Lori talked with them about her childhood and the abuse she experienced growing up. She understands the shame and embarrassment and silence that follow victims of sexual assault. There is this feeling that it’s your fault; that you shouldn’t have been there alone; that you should have taken a different route; that you should have known better. There’s a fear of telling someone, anyone, because shame and judgement and embarrassment linger. Lori gets it because she experienced it.

Lori stressed to her children the importance of vulnerability, “I’d talk to my kids about it,” said Lori. “I told them that if someone ever touches you, tell me, tell someone.” But when Lori’s daughter was molested by a man from their church, her daughter was silent. “She’s embarrassed. She’s ashamed,” said Lori. “I get it. It makes me look back at my mother … and you know what? Being a mom is hard. Mom’s make mistakes… .”

Family and support systems are crucial to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. But as child, when your support systems fail to support, then what? Where does one turn for appreciation and comfort and acknowledgment and love? There are several answers, Lori’s answer was meth.

“I ran away at 14. I did a lot of drugs after that, I used to use meth.”

Sometimes we hear stories that are alarming. It’s hard to know why these stories are difficult to hear. Perhaps it’s because we are humans, and as humans we are image-bearers of God, beings that yearn for good, for harmony, for beauty. To this point, this has not been that story.

My office faces west, and through the windows I can see the Rocky Mountain range. After writing this story I find myself staring out the window, brooding over this story. A friend of mine is the President/CEO of a non-profit who reaches out to victims of sex-trafficking. She reminded of an important insight, she said, “You have to remember this is a part of her story, it’s not the story.”

And she’s right. This is not all of Lori’s story. It’s not the story.

Eventually, Lori will go on to end up homeless. She will become irate at how it happened, how they kicked her off of SSDI, causing her to lose her monthly income of just over $800. She became two weeks behind rent and then was kicked out by the property managers.

I’ll let Lori tell you the rest of her story. “Since I’ve been homeless, I’ve had jobs,” she says. “I used to work for AT&T, in their call center. But I couldn’t pass the computer test. I get sick, too, and it makes it hard to work. When I worked, I couldn’t take a shower. There is no shower out at the women’s shelter, and when I went to work, I’d show up too late in the day to take a shower at the community center. I made it work for a while. I would just paint my fingernails so my employer wouldn’t see the dirt that is constantly under them, but…”

Her voice trails off and the interview ends.

I haven’t spoken with Lori since the first week of February. I was at the Lawrence Street Community Center last week. I tried to follow up with her, but I didn’t find her, and many of the people I spoke with didn’t know her.

I showed a picture of Lori to a friend who lives on the street. He told me that a women’s transitional housing program offered Lori admittance into their facility. Lori accepted the offer and will now have a stable place to live and shower while she works with a case manager toward developing skills to find more sustainable jobs.

And that’s Lori’s story, that’s the story. She is not defined by her experiences, experiences that have often been unfair, wrong and traumatic. Lori’s story is defined by her resilience. That’s Lori’s story. That’s the story.

 

 

Faces of The Mission is a blog series written by Jordan Smith, Denver Rescue Mission’s Writer/Photographer (with contributions by Emergency Services Coordinator, Jennifer Fitzgerald), offering insights and real-life stories from people experiencing homelessness and hardships.

Faces of the Mission :: Marco and Bartet

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“I’m from Italy,” says Marco. “I worked at an Insurance agency there. I left my job because I didn’t like it that much. I was really depressed and I wanted another experience out of life, so I left. I went to Ibiza. I was alone there for four days before I decided to go to Columbia. That’s where I met Bartet.”

We’re inside Hi Rise Bakery, at the corner of Larimer and 22nd Street. Marco is sitting in front of Jennifer. And Bartet is outside, pacing the sidewalk. He’s jonesing for a cigarette, asking strangers if he can have one. I watch through the window as a stranger lends him a smoke.

Our coffees come to the table. Two lattes and a cappuccino. “Thank you for the cappuccino,” says Marco.

Marco is confident, but soft-spoken. His presence, coupled with his Italian accent, give off a calming energy. He sips his cappuccino, and looks into my lens as I take a photo of Jennifer and him conversing about the places he has traveled to.

“Rome. Naples. Columbia. Mexico City…”

Marco lists, in no particular order, place after place.

“…Ibiza, San Francisco, and then we came here, to Denver.”

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Bartet is still outside. With one hand he holds his cigarette. His other arm is wrapped around a lamp post. His feet are off the ground, one leg kicked up in the air behind him, as he swings around and around. He swings with a child-like zeal. People pass by and smile, some laugh, others stare. But Bartet just keeps swinging.

He sees me looking at him. I, too, smile. He waves, points his index finger in the air and says something. I can’t hear him through the glass, but I read his lips. “One second,” he says.

A few minutes pass. Bartet walks into the coffee shop and over to our table. Marco excuses himself, going outside for some fresh air. Bartet sits down and begins his story.

“My mom wanted me to go into Telecommunications and stay near her,” says Bartet. “She has a lot of children and she tried to get me to stay. But it was best to leave. My dad died when I was four because of alcoholism. And I picked up alcoholism back home, too. So I left.”

“I love Jesus, and that’s where I find happiness,” says Bartet. “God is everywhere, I think. From the lyrics of Pink Floyd to the streets. He is everywhere. That’s why I like to travel, because you see so much of God and people.”

He goes on for several more minutes, speaking about his spirituality and God. He talks about angels and spirits. He talks about how he believes they are watching over him, protecting him. He talks about his friend, Marco.

As he talks he does so with his eyes closed, pondering over his thoughts before he speaks them into words. A few decades ago, he would have been identified as a hippy. But to him, he is simply spiritual, connected to a power greater than himself. It’s this connection that inspires him to keep going, to keep traveling.

“Our experiences help define us,” says Bartet. “They connect us. I don’t want to stay in one place. I always want to be adapting. Changing. Growing.”

Faces of The Mission is a blog series written by Jordan Smith, Denver Rescue Mission’s Writer/Photographer (with contributions by Emergency Services Coordinator, Jennifer Fitzgerald), offering insights and real life stories from people experiencing homelessness and hardships.

Faces of the Mission :: Margarita

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“I don’t see myself as in poverty,” Margarita says. “My parents would come back from the dead if I was in poverty! You have to know who you are. I can say that my mother and grandmother always said that people determine who you are by how you look. So, it was necessary for me to look like I wanted to do something, to look like I was out to learn something, to have my mind and my dress and my attitude to look like I was going to move forward, never thinking about moving backward, always moving forward.”

Margarita has been experiencing homelessness for 18 months, which officially makes her chronically homeless. She used to live in a duplex out by Denver International Airport, but her landlord, unable to afford payments on the apartment complex was forced to sell, resulting in Margarita having no place to go.

“Some days I go through things that make me want to pull my hair out and just get dropped off by the river somewhere by myself. But I know that’s not the answer. For me, the answer is to help someone. Jordan, I never let a day pass that I don’t help somebody. I think that if you help someone move forward—you move forward.”

“Just being with people and talking is important—something will always come up that you can talk about. And as you talk, people begin to tell you their issues, and you can try to help them.”

She’s speaking to me as if I am her student, and in a strange way, I get it. To her I’m young and somewhat naïve—my passion does not match her wisdom, her experience or even her education. For the rest of the conversation I hardly speak, I don’t ask another question. I just sit back and listen to Margarita impart her wisdom and tell her story.

“I’m from Barcelona. I came to the U.S. to go to college. I went to Radcliffe, then to the University of Minnesota. I almost froze to death in Minnesota, not literally to death, but it was so cold! And I had the nerve to be a cheerleader. Can you believe that? I was so cold during the football season that I thought I was going to die!”

“After my experience in Minnesota, I hurried to California. I studied at the University there—at Berkley. I studied psychology and ended up working that field, helping parents and children.”

“I have a talent to sing. I sing opera—I like to do that. I’ve done that since I was a kid, and that excites me. I haven’t done any real work since I’ve been in Denver because this is not an opera city. In San Francisco, I did a lot of work. I worked for the city and then I would go across the street to one of the city organizations and be on stage. I’ve always liked to act.”

Jennifer Fitzgerald, our Emergency Services Coordinator downtown who was also a part of this interview, chimes in…“You’re so joyful, Margarita. What makes you that way?”

“Anticipation for life,” Margarita says. “I always ask myself, what can I do to help others today? What can I do to get out of this situation? And creating, just trying to create an interest in something, and holding an interest in something, because that’s the only way you can live out here. If you have no interest and you don’t do anything to help people—you don’t do anything to build, then what are you doing? You know? You have to do something to help others. That’s what I was taught.”

Faces of The Mission is a blog series written by Jordan Smith, Denver Rescue Mission’s Writer/Photographer and former Next Step Coordinator at the Lawrence Street Community Center, offering insights and real life stories from people experiencing homelessness and hardships.

Faces of the Mission :: Reginald

Reginald looking upI stare downward at the sidewalk as we step past people living in homelessness standing and laying beside walls. For some, the walls act as support, providing a foundation to rest on, to sleep beside. For others, the walls provide a space to interact, to have conversation and ‘just kick it’ with her/his street family.

Despite their many differences, people experiencing homelessness all have something in common; two things in particular. They are all human, and they are all waiting, waiting on something, waiting on anything.

Our walk takes us beside the community garden. I lift my head and glance at the thermometer clinched to the side of the fence. The mysterious red liquid inside the thermometer is stretching toward the 95 degree line. Despite the heat, Jennifer (my colleague), Reginald, and myself are on a walkabout, headed for the nearest coffee shop.

As we walk, Lower Downtown’s lunch time traffic zooms and vroom’s past us; the breaks on a woman’s bicycle screech for attention; a Boston terrier, to our right, howls for someone to pet him. Amid the noise of the city streets is Reginald’s voice.

“I met my father when I was 18 years old, but he was a good role model to me. When I met him he didn’t want me selling drugs. He didn’t want me [out there] gang banging. He made me go back to school. He taught me how to read and write when I was 18. It was nice; he was a good man; he is a good man. He always taught me to be better, to strive to be a good man too.”

Reginald pauses. We’ve arrived at our table, located outside on the patio of Snooze. “I have two salted caramel lattes and a regular latte” says the barista, setting our drinks on the table. Reggie reaches for his, a salted caramel latte. He also reaches for a napkin. When he talks about his father he gets emotional; he wipes the tears from his eyes, and continues his story.

“My father was a mother and a father to me; my mom was a drugee, she lost custody of us when I was a child. I lost contact with everyone in my family…I only stopped talking to my father because of what I was doing at the time. He heard I was doing drugs and when he found out his face looked like he was disappointed…I feel like I messed up, like I ruined his name…I want to make my father proud. I would like to help juveniles like I was. I think that’d make him proud. A lot of them are in a big haze that they can’t get out of. I want to give them chances, give them opportunities. They need something to do, because in the neighborhoods that’s why we turn to gang-banging, because there’s not [anything] to do…I didn’t have no help either. I turned to what I could, and what I thought was right. Turns out gang-banging wasn’t right.”

“I used to be a drug dealer too,” Reggie says. “That’s all I used to do…the drugs I sold I turned to for some kind of comfort. I felt when I was doing drugs that I was happy, then, in just a short amount of time, I watched everything I had go away. My wife. My step kids. My job. I lost everything. I never wanted anything else in life than to be clean, again. I mean its like I told God when I was selling dope. ‘If this ain’t what you want me to do, give me a sign.’”

“He took everything away from me, everything, and now I’ve started to participate and actually do something with my life…I mean I’ve been down here [at the Mission] for three weeks and I’ve done no drugs…He hasn’t given [everything] back to me, but instead he’s saying to me, ‘you messed up kid, but you still have a chance. You can either fix what you’ve done and become better or you can continue to go downhill.’”

“When you talk about youth, you get excited, you get passionate.” I say. “Where does that passion come from Reggie?”

Reginald “Nobody helped me when I was a child, I went through [a lot]. If somebody would have stepped in I wonder where my life would be. I wonder the individual or the man I would have become. I wonder what accomplishments I would have already succeeded in, just what I would have been able to do with my life. It’s not right for anybody to suffer like I did. I mean, not many people survive being shot too many times, or being stabbed, or having your finger cut off. Why should people go through what I went through? We all grow up in bad places and in areas and situations that we can’t control, but we shouldn’t have to stay there. That’s why I get passionate, because why should a child lose their life because he or she has no environment from which to succeed? Why should a kid think ‘this is all I got?’ Why should they be like, ‘you know what, since I ain’t got [nothing else] I might as well give up.’”

“What about people living in homelessness? What do you want people to know about homelessness?” asks Jennifer.

“Not all of us are drug addicts. Some of us do have problems that stretch more than just drugs. A lot of us have mental health problems. A lot of us have trust issues. A lot of us have issues because we’ve never had nobody to back us up or to say you’ve done a good job. [A lot of us] have turned to the drugs because not only are we now homeless, but now we have lost everything. Some of us have lost the willpower to live, so we turn to what we can to find comfort…some people turn to God. Some people go to their family, but some people turn to the streets. Everybody has their own coping mechanism to deal with their stresses, and homeless people are no different.”

He’s right. The people we stepped past to get to this coffee shop are no different than Jennifer and I. We’re all humans. We’re all waiting, looking forward to experiencing something greater than our own story.

“You know, a lot of people look at us like we’re just a nobody. Most people don’t care who we are; they could not care less. They just look at us like we’re a face. I just want people to see that I came from a grinding area to a place of being loved, and that’s all I want. That’s all I’m waiting for; that’s what I look forward to. I just want to be loved…”

Faces of The Mission is a blog series written by Jordan Smith, a Next Step Coordinator at the Lawrence Street Community Center, offering insights and real life stories from people experiencing homelessness and hardships.