Opinion: Homeless people the target of online hate

David Heitz

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Man, the comments on my NewsBreak stories get more hateful every day. Lots of people detest those experiencing homelessness.

One person always writes that homeless people should be made to lie in their own feces. I delete that comment because it’s just gross. I delete a lot of comments, in fact. I thought about listing a few for you, but then I thought, why would I give ink to such hatefulness?

There’s one guy who always posts the same comment. His advice to solve the problem of homelessness is to “take down the bird feeder.” He goes on to talk about “personal accountability” as if no one ended up homeless due to economic reasons, mental illness, or developmental disabilities. Instead, every post talks about “junkies” and “drug addicts” and “scum of the earth.”

The man who wants to take down the bird feeder likens homeless people to birds, I guess. Sparrows, I’m sure.

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Some homeless people once lived large

Lots of homeless people have enjoyed great success in life, myself included. I’ve worked as an editor at newspapers all over the country, from Los Angeles to Detroit to Quad-Cities. I even worked as executive news editor of historic Advocate magazine in 1997-98.

I never thought I would become homeless. Actually, shortly before my dad died in 2014, I had a feeling I might. And that’s interesting given I inherited a large sum of money when he died.

The money did not matter. I was out of my mind and spending it on social media advertising. I would write stories about things I believed to be 100 percent accurate at the time and pay Facebook and Twitter to send them into the news feeds of certain demographics.

At that time, I was not behaving like myself. My diagnosis is severe bipolar disorder and PTSD. But with medication I’m doing great. I’m a little reluctant to go places due to my PTSD, and I don’t like large crowds. But I can pay my rent and fulfill my basic needs writing for NewsBreak.

Homeless people often anything but lazy

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I received the "Local Champion Award" from NewsBreak this year for my coverage of Denver and Aurora.David Heitz

I write about 45 stories per month. That takes a lot of energy. Many people on Invega, Seroquel and Prazosin, like myself, report lethargy as a side effect. I’ve not had that problem.

In fact, when it comes to pounding out a news story on deadline, I’m as fast and as accurate as I’ve ever been.

I am proud of the work I do for NewsBreak. Unlike many homeless people, I never stopped believing in myself. As humiliating as you might think it was for a once clean-cut newspaper executive to be roaming around Denver with a scraggly goatee, screaming nonsense, it wasn’t really embarrassing. The mental illness affected me in such a way that I did not believe I was doing anything inappropriate. I never thought I was a piece of this or that. I defended myself against hateful remarks all the time.

Abuse by drunks prevalent in LoDo

Some people in Denver, particularly the late-night drinkers, will go out of their way to harass homeless people, especially in LoDo. They will scream things like “get a job” at people so off the wall they don’t know up from down. That was me during homelessness. I was barely grounded enough to find my next meal. Reality escaped me and left me in an angry state. I thought everything I encountered was a conspiracy related to my hometown.

I did have some problems in my hometown. My home absorbed two bullets. I chalked it up to things I had written about. That may or may not be true. Tom Hanks and Paul Newman starred in a movie about my hometown of Rock Island, Ill. called “Road to Perdition.” The movie is based on a true story of mafia maestro John Looney, called “Rooney” in the film. Rock Island has tunnels downtown filled with prohibition liquor bottles and even dancing elephants painted on the walls.

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My story is crazy. It is one filled with abuse and trauma that was real. But those things left me completely unwired, unraveled and insane. Drugs and/or alcohol completely were out of the picture during my first few months of homelessness. In fact, I had been sober since 2014 upon becoming homeless in 2019.

Drugs, alcohol usually follow homelessness, not precede it

So, drugs and/or alcohol had nothing to do with me becoming homeless. And I once lived in a penthouse in Detroit. I have a liberal arts degree from a private, Lutheran college affiliated with Sweden called Augustana College, which is in Rock Island.

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In 2001, I lived in a 29th floor penthouse in Detroit at Riverfront Apartments.David Heitz

I am not sharing my story to brag or try to impress anyone. But I do share it so that people understand not every homeless story is the one angry people create in their heads about people they know nothing about. People who are suffering every day and every night with nowhere to go to the bathroom, shower, sleep … would you use drugs under those conditions if they made you feel better? I did. And I’m not going to lie about that. I was afraid to go to sleep many nights. I often would sleep down by the Platte River. I fell asleep on a hill of red ants once.

Maybe my story will make people who dislike their fellow homeless human beings even angrier. It shows homelessness can happen to anyone.

Most of my life I lived comfortably. With age and trauma episodes where my mental illness flares up have increased. I did not work for a few years here and there. My dad supported me during those times. It's no wonder I was homeless a few years after his death.

Not everyone panhandles but I’m glad some do

I certainly never sought sympathy during homelessness. I never panhandled, not once, not a single time. I could not imagine panhandling. I’d never do it. But I don’t judge those who do, because during homelessness those people proved generous. I never had a penny.

I used to have a boss at the Daily Pilot in Newport Beach, Calif. who said homeless people had been put on earth to test us all.

Lots of surprising stories, common threads

There are many homeless people on the street with stories similar to mine. These stories involve extreme trauma that leaves a person scarred and unable to function normally. Yes, possibly addicted to drugs and alcohol. But what you’ll find is the drugs and alcohol came after homelessness, not before it. Some won’t think that matters, but I think it’s telling.

The other thing you’ll find about homeless people is that they often have lost both of their parents. The family unit never was strong. I have an aunt who is developmentally disabled. My family let her become a ward of the state as opposed to taking the responsibility to care for her. Of course, they’re going to let a cousin go crazy and become homeless. I have a brother I have not spoken to since my dad’s funeral in 2015.

Homelessness not always as it seems

Maybe sharing my story will help people understand that homelessness, its causes, and those it affects does not always fit stereotypes that drive ugly narratives. The encampment dwellers smoking meth bubbles on the street are only one part of homelessness. But they deserve to be treated with decency, too. People become addicted to meth using it to stay awake and stay safe. Some opioid addicts I met became hooked on painkillers after a car accident. Painkillers prescribed by a doctor often lead to opioid addiction.

My intent with this column is not to make anyone angry, and hopefully I won’t. Nobody should be expected to know much about homelessness if they have not experienced it themselves.

Hopefully, the comments won’t be nasty.

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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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