Wrapping our Heads around Homelessness

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Brooke Dilling| @brookefrances

It happened innocently enough. We were on our way to school and stopped at a light in downtown Denver. My oldest son points out the window to a man holding a cardboard sign. “Mom, look. There’s a beggar.” And my heart stopped beating for a moment and my stomach dropped into my toes.

Did I teach him that?

I really need to wrap my head around Denver’s homelessness issue. Years ago, I volunteered for Project Homeless Connect, a day-long event to connect people experiencing homelessness with services they desperately need. Each person is assigned a volunteer guide. I was one of these guides. For various reasons, I didn’t have a great experience at PHC, and found a few of my stereotypes of those experiencing homelessness reinforced.

So, I started asking some questions regarding people experiencing homelessness in our mile high city. Kristi Schaefer and Cuica (pronounced KWEE – ka) were kind enough to share their insights on Denver and homelessness. Schaefer is a social worker with the Denver Public Library. She spends her days assisting people experiencing homelessness in Denver. Cuica, who uses her first name only, is formerly homeless and also works at the library as a peer advocate for those with no home. Both are based out of Central Library in downtown Denver.

Here’s what I learned:

  • There is no “one way” into homelessness.
  • Homelessness is all too easy to fall into and many are one small step away--a medical emergency, an unexpected expense--from experiencing homelessness.
  • Many of youth experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ.
  • Denver also has a lot of homeless youth who aged out of the foster care system.
  • Much of Denver’s homeless population is invisible, meaning they are couch surfing or staying in motels or in cars.  
  • It’s particularly scary for women to be homeless. Women without a safe place to go face increased danger of sexual assault.
  • Sometimes women and youth choose “survival sex” just so they have a safe space to stay for the night.
  • It’s difficult to get back out of homelessness.
  • Over 10,000 people are currently experiencing homelessness across our state.

It wasn’t only my conversations with Schaefer and Cuica on the causes and difficulties of those experiencing homelessness that helped me better understand the issue of homelessness, it was Cucia’s personal story:

Cuica became homeless when a relationship ended. She was a real estate agent making good money, but, as Cucia tells it, she and her boyfriend liked to party. The two had a young child, but Cuica admits the relationship was toxic. When he left, she became very depressed and started partying more – drugs and alcohol. She lost her job, her home and decided she needed treatment.

Once clean, she and her boyfriend got back together but the relationship imploded again. Her boyfriend kicked her out and she found herself couch surfing. Soon, Cuica found herself living on the streets, where she felt vulnerable. She jumped into a relationship with the first person she felt safe with. She spent time on the streets and in and out of jail. Her alcohol and drug use morphed into a harder drug: heroin.  

Cuica was able to get clean because of an arrest and a long jail sentence. Two and a half months in jail without access to drugs gave her clarity. She was able to reconnect with family but couldn’t stay with them; they didn’t trust her. Through Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, Cuica was able to find support programs to keep her on the right path. This eventually led her to find employment at Denver Public Library. She loves her job because she gets to work with people in situations similar to what she has experienced. Her daughter now splits time with both Cuica and her daughter’s dad.

As for me and how I’m addressing these issues with my kids? I’m trying to approach their questions, and my answers, with more empathy. I try to help them recognize there are a million reasons why a person might be standing on the corner with a cardboard sign, and the person they see on the corner is not the only representation of homelessness, it takes many forms.