Homeless in Paradise

The name and certain identifying details of this profile’s main character have been changed.

During the winter, Tim lives in Boulder, Colo., in the shadow of the Flatirons, whose rippled outline provide some of the most recognizable vistas of Colorado’s Front Range Mountains. Boulder is a college town, home to the flagship University of Colorado, and routinely gets voted among the best places to live in the United States by such publications as Kiplinger’s, USA Today and Backpacker magazine. It remains one of the strongest small metro-area housing markets in America (and maintains its high cost of living), in part because of its restrictions on development and the acquisition of more than 43,000 acres of open space.

During the summer, Tim lives in the quintessential hometown of Longmont, Colo., 16 miles northeast of Boulder. Recognized twice on Money magazine‘s list of the Top 100 Best Places to Live, Longmont boasts more than 300 days of sunshine per year.

Tim, who is 40, travels a lot, not because he has a summerhouse in Longmont and a winter retreat in Boulder, or because he routinely jets off from Denver International Airport on business trips. Tim is homeless. For the last two winters, he has spent his winters in Boulder, largely because of the probability of winning a lottery bed at the local homeless shelter on frigid winter nights. When the Boulder shelter effectively closes for the summer, Tim finds his way to Longmont, where his cousin lives in Section 8 government housing, occasionally using her phone or storing a few valuables at her place, but always managing to find an out-of-the-way place to sleep.

Where Tim really lives is in a world marked by seasons instead of daytimers, by acronymed social programs with mountains of red tape and constant reminders of his lack of permanent physical address, by lonely days spent in overused clothing, and until recently, by a worsening medical condition that was bad enough to keep him from working, but not bad enough to make him eligible for full disability benefits.

He is quick to point out that the definition of “homeless” applies to “someone lacking in permanent physical dwelling,” which could include:  truck drivers who live on the road, people who live in RVs, people who live from paycheck to paycheck and end up shuttling from friend’s house to friend’s house, military veterans who camp out in the woods, as well as the more stereotypical profile of someone who can’t hold a job or maintain a residence because of chemical dependence, alcohol, prescription or illegal drug abuse, broken family relationships, psychological or social problems, or an inability to manage money.

According to Tim, many of his acquaintances in the homeless community, like him, pay for storage units to protect the relics of their former lives. “They might have stuff, anywhere from a little to a lot, that they’re holding onto. There is that hope that they’ll have a chance to get back [to a normal life].”


When a house is not a home

“I was psychologically homeless long before I was physically homeless,” Tim says. “I didn’t think of myself as having a home even though physically I had a place I could return to.”

Tim grew up an only child in a 3 bedroom, 1 bathroom house his parents rented on some ranchland in western Montana. He and his parents moved to Colorado in 1984 because they had family in the area, eventually settling in a house in Northglenn, Colo.

His father, whom he refers to by his first name, Austin, made his living as a truck driver. “He was physically gone 95 percent of the time,” Tim says. “Emotionally absent 100 percent. Why would I refer to someone who never played ball with me, never took me to a game, but yelled at me any time I didn’t live up to his standards, as ‘daddy’ or ‘father’?”

While loading his rig at a truck stop near Tacoma, Wash., Austin was shot in the stomach by someone trying to rob him in order to feed a drug habit. Austin died on Christmas Eve of 1993.

After the shooting, Tim’s mother, Kathleen, who was a stay-at-home mom, scraped by on the worker’s compensation she received from Austin’s trucking company. His grandmother, who he refers to as “Kathleen’s mother” has what he calls “undiagnosed bipolar disorder.” Tim no longer has any contact with her.

“I did not mingle with my peers in any grade level,” Tim says.

He struggled in his studies all the way through school, battling what he believes was attention deficit disorder, and social awkwardness, to scrape by as a D-average student.

From the time he graduated from high school until he was forced onto the streets in 2008, Tim estimates he moved into a new job about once a year, working as a security guard until 1999 when he got his commercial driver’s license (CDL) and started hauling cargo.


Going (partially) blind

A few years out of high school, Tim was diagnosed with keratoconus, a progressive eye condition that affects about 1 out of every 2,000 people. It causes the cornea to thin and grow out of shape, distorting a person’s vision. Tim started wearing glasses, but still needed a corneal transplant in his left eye in 1995. After the surgery, one of his sutures came apart and is still in his eye, but the transplant did effectively improve his left eye’s vision to 20/25. Over time, however, his right eye worsened to the point where he was legally blind.

Kathleen was diagnosed with treatable cervical cancer on Memorial Day of 2005. Tim had been driving a truck for six years, staying at home only seven to 10 days out of every eight to 12 weeks, but he was forced off the road in order to take care of Kathleen. The longer he didn’t work, the worse Kathleen’s health got, and the more he realized just how dire her financial resources actually were.

“It was like she got in the car every morning and drove through life without looking at the fuel gauge or checking the oil,” Tim recalls. “She had no insurance, no savings, no provisions for anything.”

Kathleen died the following June.

Tim got back on the road, but he lost the house when the mortgage company foreclosed. When he failed the Colorado Department of Transportation eye test in October of 2008, he lost his job.

“I came back to Longmont because of my cousin. It was the only thing I could think of to do. Stayed with her for 30 days. After that I went over to the shelter in Boulder. I went through their various programs saying ‘I’m not working because of my eye, help me find the money to fix my eye.’”

The keratoconus in Tim’s right eye had progressed beyond the help of glasses or contacts, but a corneal transplant cost between $10,000-15,000. “I wasn’t asking them to do it for me, just to help me find help,” Tim says. No one he asked, at the shelter or at the other mostly understaffed and overworked agencies and nonprofits in the area knew what to tell him.


Learning the system

But Tim learned to survive with the help he did receive, putting his name on a waiting list for and eventually being accepted into the Boulder shelter’s nine-month-long “Transitions” program, which offered him one of the shelter’s 160 beds each night. He ate breakfast there when he woke up in time, gingerly picked his way through the chipped floor when he needed to use the community shower, occasionally used the shelter’s washer and dryer, and generally learned to navigate “the system.”

  • He applied for and received food stamps through BCSS (Boulder County Social Services): $200/month.
  • Because he had a doctor-verified disability in his right eye, he applied to a program called AND (Assistance for the Needy Disabled – not a typo): $200/month allowance.
  • Tim got diagnosed with high blood pressure, and when he realized it cost $60 for a 3-month supply of generic blood pressure medication, he applied for EFA (Emergency Family Assistance), a program meant to help people with low or no income pay for medication: one-time grant of $20.
  • He applied for MAP (Medical Assistance Program), but was told he didn’t qualify because it only helps pay for non-generic prescription drugs.
  • In November 2008, Tim applied for SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance): potentially worth $800/month, application still pending.
  • He applied for a financial review to receive therapy at BCMH (Boulder County Mental Health): $6/individual therapy session, $3/group session. Tim admits he is currently “running with a tab” there, noting that the nearby Louisville mental health clinic recently closed due to lack of funds.
  • Last summer, after he started feeling lethargic and groggy during the day, but couldn’t sleep at night, Tim went to the People’s Clinic, a low-cost community health center, and was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. He got an insulin kit, meant to last seven to 10 days and was told to return to the clinic when it ran out. He started taking oral insulin pills and giving himself two shots a day. He soon realized it cost $130 every three months for a 90-day supply, not including the blood-sugar testing kit, test strips and lancets.

“I found out the hard way there are no long-term illness medical medication assistance programs available at the city, county or state level within Colorado,” Tim says. “’Sometimes I have to choose between medication and other things for the month.”


Life on the street

Like the other clients at the shelter, Tim had to be out the door by 8 a.m. each morning. While some of the others would go out and, as they put it, “fly a sign,” he would often walk to the King Soopers on Table Mesa and buy breakfast with his food stamps. Then he walked to the library and read for the rest of the day. He had an occasional doctor’s appointment, but it was always back to the shelter between 5 and 7 p.m. for dinner and later, mandatory chores. Sometimes he would watch TV or a movie with the other residents if they could find something that satisfied everyone. Then it was lights out at 10.

“I was always tense, nervous, very guarded,” Tim says. “I thought I had to be. People [on the street] tend to embellish their stories to make themselves feel better. You never know who to trust, and sometimes even someone you think you can trust turns out not to be trustworthy.”

After nine months searching for help with his keratoconus so he could get another job as a truck driver, Tim returned to the street, knowing he could reapply to enter the “Transitions” program after four months.

“You learn whatever it takes to survive,” Tim says. “When people don’t know where their next meal is going to come from, don’t have a warm, dry place to stay, or a way to keep up good personal hygiene, it tends to get a little…how do I say this…they are going to survive, and if they have to steal from somebody they will…Take away all those things from any person and take them away for long enough and with the uncertainty of it, they will eventually start acting like that, and that includes me.”

“People in the homeless community move around a lot during the summer. A lot go up in the mountains to camp out. We are a restless group, and we all have our hide-a-holes and survival tricks.

“I got good at hiding,” Tim says. In his six months sleeping on the streets, he had managed to avoid any sort of street violence, as well as the police, sleeping in underground parking garages, irrigation ditches or concealed doorways to avoid the cold and wind.

“You learn to sleep anywhere after a while, never really well in some ways, always on alert because you need to be out of there [early in the morning].”

Homeless people found sleeping in Boulder can be fined $100 and have to appear in court, as a recent Boulder Daily Camera story highlighted.


Transplant grant

Last summer, a case manager at the People’s Clinic in Boulder told Tim he had learned about a large international club that helped people with eyesight problems. (The club wishes to remain anonymous.) Though Tim had unsuccessfully pursued almost a dozen similar grants, he applied anyway. He was interviewed and his application was reviewed. Then when Tim checked his voice mail (he doesn’t have a phone number, just voice mail that he checks periodically), he got the message that his application to receive a grant for a corneal transplant had been approved, providing they could get it done for the lower Medicare rate as opposed to the full rate.

The club originally arranged the surgery through a Longmont corneal specialist, but when a Longmont surgical center refused to accept the Medicare rate it caused a four-month delay. Finally, the club arranged for Tim’s procedure through a corneal specialist in southwest of Denver.

On March 11, Tim had successful corneal transplant surgery on his right eye. As of Tim’s follow-up appointment on June 30, his right eye’s sight went from 20/400 to 20/40, which is fully correctible to 20/20 with glasses.


Where to from here?

In two days, Tim has an appointment to get fitted for his prescription. Once he has his new glasses, he plans to make an appointment for a Colorado Department of Transportation physical. Once he passes the physical, including an eye test, he will fax his results to a prospective employer based out of Chicago, and then hopefully have a job. “As soon as they say, ‘You’re hired,” I’ll hop the next Greyhound to Chicago, have my orientation, get a truck and get on the road again.”

Now that he’s close to being off the streets, Tim has started thinking about the future again.

“It’s nice to have a base of operations to store extra stuff, get mail, to return to on a regular basis. I just want it to be someplace cool and wet,” Tim says, but the frustration of being homeless lingers in his voice. “Imagine having to get up and face that every day not knowing where your next meal will come from and not having a warm place to sleep…with no end in sight. It very nearly broke me…You become desperate to escape the reality you’re in. Time can cease to have meaning…You get up and you face the same thing every day, day after day.”

A good friend of mine and I originally met Tim in 2008 at the King Soopers referred to in the story. I have not heard from him since July 2010.

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