Denver, CO

Opinion: Formerly homeless Denver reporter optimistic about housing efforts

David Heitz
An encampment is given notice of a pending sweep by the City and County of Denver.Denver Homeless Out Loud

Many years ago, I had an editor who told me something I never will forget. He said homeless people were angels put on Earth by God to evaluate our decency.

He spoke passionately. I always thought it odd for a rich guy from Orange County. I was young and thought I had the world by the horns. I certainly never intended to become homeless myself.

I looked away when I saw homeless people in the parks in Southern California. I never gave them spare change.

Wouldn’t they just use it on drugs anyway?

No, not necessarily. They might use it to buy a roll of toilet paper if they can be lucky enough to find a place to go to the restroom.

How very presumptuous of me, a spoiled child who always had everything I wanted, to have any idea of what it might be like to be homeless. I went to an elite liberal arts college and wore Benetton sweaters.

And I never would have believed it if someone had told me that one day, I’d find out what it’s like to sleep on the streets.

Bipolar disorder leads to homelessness

But I did end up on the streets in 2018 after my dad died in 2015. Within a few years of his death, I was off my bipolar medication and filled with anger and sadness. I also experienced trauma with my home being shot at twice in Illinois.

At the same time, I became sober and lost all my friends.

It all messed with my head badly. I sold my home in Illinois, which was paid for, and jumped on an airplane to Denver with no place to live. I had the proceeds from my house.

I quickly blew through that money living in luxury. For example: I landed in Denver in August, 2018. I quickly blew through my money and was broke by Christmas.

That’s the condensed version of the story, anyway.

Residents emotional about homelessness

Nothing proves how big an issue homelessness is in Denver than public comment time at City Council meetings. Whether it’s residents angry about feces around encampments or homeless advocates calling for an end to the sweeps, homelessness is the hottest topic in Denver.

Those who advocate for people experiencing homelessness do an excellent job. And they are tireless.

At a recent council meeting, a man reported live via Zoom from outside the council chambers at Civic Center Park. He said he was live from “Kris Kringle Village, and nobody is smoking meth in the park.”

He went on to say, “People out here are fighting for their lives. We need more safe outdoor spaces.”

The man lamented people experiencing homelessness having run-ins with 16th Street Mall security. He also said the homeless are sometimes unable to access mental health services.

My struggles finding help

Indicative of my bipolar disorder, my life has been filled with peaks and valleys. Just as I have experienced homelessness, I once lived in a 29th-floor penthouse apartment in downtown Detroit. That was while working as deputy news editor of The Detroit News in 2001.

I had several mental health emergencies on 16th Street Mall when I experienced homelessness. I got into a fight on one occasion, and a police officer knocked me to the ground and stood on me until an ambulance came.

In the ambulance, I was given ketamine and taken to a hospital. I woke up in a rage and swiftly was discharged to the street, right back to the mess where I came from.

I have faith that change is coming to the systems that supply relief to people experiencing homelessness.

Mental health care is the most urgent need most people experiencing homelessness face. It should not be difficult to access. But it is. I lived this. It’s triggering to even talk about.

I got the mental health treatment I needed eventually, but only after several costly hospitalizations and jail time. I ended up at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo, which last I knew had a waiting list hundreds of people long.

System gives up on many experiencing homelessness

People experiencing homelessness manage to find drugs, even in rehab. They repeatedly get thrown out of programs. Unfortunately, the system begins to give up on them.

How we treat people experiencing homelessness should not come from our deepest fears about our own suffering. It should come from the knowledge that we are one community, and we all need to be good to one another.

Nobody needs to remember that more than those living on the street. Sadly, people experiencing homelessness aren’t always good to one another. Relationships become stressed when your bed is the sidewalk.

Violence between people experiencing homelessness is pervasive and real. I suffered many assaults during homelessness. I am grateful I still have all my teeth and that the doctor did a respectable job all those times I got stitches on my face. Even the time they had to sew up my lips after a female impersonator cold-cocked me on the Free MallRide.

The greatest compliments I get as a writer for NewsBreak are from people experiencing homelessness. Nothing makes me feel more affirmed than receiving thanks from people who are suffering like I did.

Almost 600 housed in just 200 days

It’s miserable being homeless in Denver. But there’s reason to be optimistic.

The City of Denver has made housing people experiencing homelessness a top priority and allocated millions of dollars.Recently, the city housed almost 600 people in 100 days during a so-called “housing surge.” The city used its contacts and resources to give unhoused people house keys. A second campaign to house as many people as possible will begin on Feb. 1.

The other issue Denverites can count on being addressed is the area’s poor mental health system. This has been the topic of discussion on many online bulletin boards. A recent report by Mental Health America showed the extent of Colorado’s problems.

Data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration show that 19.55 percent of Colorado residents are living with some kind of mental illness, the third-highest rate in the country, according to a report..

Colorado’s poor mental health system in spotlight

The report concluded that more than half of Coloradans with mental health problems in 2018 (57 percent) did not receive care. The good news is the topic of Colorado’s failed mental health system is hot. Talk usually generates change.

The other thing people experiencing homelessness in Denver have going for them are all the advocates. Denver is chock full of people who regularly speak out in support of Denver’s homeless population. The homeless advocacy group Homeless Out Loud videotapes every city sweep to make sure the city follows protocol.

The most important thing people experiencing homelessness need to remember is to never give up. Lists for getting into housing, while still years long, are much shorter than they used to be.

It sounds so cliché, but focusing on the positive, whatever positives you can find, is the way to survive homelessness.

I often forget to give thanks for all I have. I need to change that.

Reminding yourself of your blessings brings joy. Sharing your blessings with others does, too.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best local newspapers in the country. Today, I report on Denver City Hall, homelessness and other topics for NewsBreak, much like I did in my twenties covering Newport Beach, Calif. for the Daily Pilot. I consider myself a lucky guy to still be doing what I love after so many years.

Denver, CO

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