Union Station now far less attractive to homeless

David Heitz


(Emmanuel Eppiah/Unsplash)

Chalk up one more place the homeless can’t go in Denver.

On Wednesday, the Denver RTD unleashed a flurry of new regulations at Union Station “in the interest of public health.” The new rules take effect immediately.

I wrote about Union Station last week in a story that did well for News Break. I mentioned drug dealers had taken over the restrooms. When I was homeless, I stopped going there out of fear of my safety.

So, you can imagine what out-of-town tourists think.

But the homeless probably won't be hanging out at Union Station for at least a while. People aren’t even allowed to eat in the underground bus terminal portion of the station anymore. The RTD added a flurry of other new rules for the underground station this week as well.

I can see why they want to prohibit food. The trash receptable outside the entrance to the underground bus terminal was teeming with rats. They darted in and out from under the can by the dozens. The rats did not care that the plaza was filled with people most of the time.

No sitting on floor, limit of two in restroom

Now, only two people will be allowed in the restroom at one time. In theory this would end the drug dealing in the bathroom, except many of the drug dealers camp out in the stalls.

Back when I would frequent Union Station, you could tell a security guard someone was loitering in a restroom stall and they would come tell the person to wrap it up. But, usually, the offender just ignored the security guard for another hour while slipping drugs under the stall.

The new rules also prohibit sitting on the floor. It goes without saying that sitting on the floor in a place like Union Station is unsanitary, COVID or not.

Usually, the people sitting on the floor at Union Station are homeless. Sometimes all the seats are full. Other times homeless amass in groups with some sitting on the floor because they want to.

RTD addresses COVID, homelessness

COVID-19 disproportionately affects the homeless because they rely on public buildings for temporary shelter and restroom facilities.

“RTD has been meeting with public health officials each week since the COVID-19 pandemic began,” Denver RTD General Manager and CEO Debra A. Johnson said in a news release. “We are implementing these restrictions at Union Station to comply with public health orders, to ensure that this important space is a safe and healthy environment for employees, customers and the general public.

“Station personnel will be monitoring behavior and educating people who are not following safety protocols and adhering to the rules.”

In making the announcement the RTD also addressed the issue of homelessness at Union Station.

“As of early January, RTD has four full-time mental health clinicians on staff and is in the process of recruiting and hiring a homeless outreach coordinator to assist people experiencing homelessness who might be at RTD facilities,” the agency stated.

The RTD also reminded the public to practice social distancing on the RTD fleet and in stations. “RTD is committed to protecting employees and customers during these extraordinary times brought on by the pandemic and also relies on the public to do their part as partners in safety by following protocols.

“Customers must continue to wear face coverings and practice social distancing by maintaining a 6-foot distance from others, in all facilities and on RTD vehicles.”

Riding the buses and the rails all night long

For a while when I first became homeless, Union Station was a sanctuary. It was a place to use the restroom and sit quietly in from the cold.

I think one of the reasons I gravitated to Union Station is because I previously went through a phase of riding the buses and the trains all night long. So, Union Station was familiar to me.

While I still had a little bit of money, I would buy a day pass. The train to the airport runs all night long.

When I began hanging out at Union Station regularly, other homeless people began to accuse me of things. I frequently was threatened.

There were a few good eggs who roamed Union Station.

I remember one young woman who always had a genuine smile on her face, despite experiencing homelessness. I always got a kick out of the fact the drivers would let her on without paying.

A couple of times drivers waived the fare for me without me even asking. But not very often.

Some drivers treated the homeless people just like everyone else, which is all the homeless people want and expect.

Bus depots aren’t the places for pedicures

The homeless people at Union Station can at times be disgusting. I was one of those people.

But I couldn’t help it.

You would find lots of homeless people at Union Station peeling (yes, peeling) sweaty socks off their feet and attempting to remove the toe cheese. They then would toss the socks into the trash.

I did this myself. When you are homeless, your feet take a beating even with good shoes if you’re lucky to have them.

I remember a guard approaching me while I was cleaning my feet. He said, “No foul odors, and if it makes you feel better, my feet would stink pretty bad too if I got them out.”

I was embarrassed, but at least he was nice about it.

City cites RTD for COVID violations

The city has actively enforced COVD restrictions. That is forcing the RTD into compliance.

“Over the past several months there has been an increase in health-related service calls to Union Station,” RTD announced. “The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment has issued two citations to RTD, on Dec. 15 and Jan. 8, for violations of the public health orders regarding use of face coverings, congregating and social distancing.

“RTD is legally required to comply with public health orders and will be fined for violations that could lead to court summons, fines and facility closure.”

Ambulance calls to Union Station are commonplace. Homeless people frequently experience mental health emergencies. Other times they are just exhausted and want nothing more than a hospital bed.

My own little piece of insanity

I suffered from plenty of mental problems while homeless. I was not taking medication at that time for my PTSD or other conditions.

I became triggered a few times in Union Station and was tossed out by security. Most of the time, however, I kept to myself, or at least tried to. I would scrawl notes about why I became homeless and stuff them into nooks and crannies.

I must have thought my fairy godmother was going to find them.

One of the worst things ever happened to me at Union Station. I met a woman who said she was homeless. She didn't look homeless.

She was being very sweet to me. At that time all I had left were my journalism awards, which I carried around in two shopping bags.

I asked this woman to please watch my journalism awards while I went to the restroom.

When I came back, both the woman and my journalism awards were gone. I was devastated. Thirty years of awards, gone. Thankfully I have pictures of some of them.

I had some scary times at Union Station, that is for sure. But I’m not sure where I would have gone otherwise at the time.

It seems like these new COVID-19 regulations are just one more way to the legislate the homeless right out of existence.

If only it were that simple.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

Denver, CO

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