Feature: Suburban homeless (the travel trap)

Published December 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 11

text and images by D. Giles Clasen

For a Minnesota country-man, coming to Colorado meant becoming homeless, and inching ominously closer to the city every day.

Terri Schweppe does not belong in a city. His handlebar mustache, black cowboy hat and duster expresses clearly that he is a man more comfortable in a small town than downtown.

When he moved to Denver, it was a move full of both tragedy and hope.  He drove his unreliable van from Minneapolis, across the barren cornfields of the Midwest, to Colorado’s Front Range expecting to find open air and a job.

But Schweppe didn’t find the sanctuary he expected. Instead, he quickly became homeless.

It is one more setback for Schweppe, who moved after his identical twin, Larry Schweppe, died of a stroke in April. “I have been a little lost without him,” Schweppe admits.  “He was my compass.  I sometimes feel like when he died I lost my identity.  Now I have lost everything.”

The two had been roommates and best friends. Schweppe continues to carry Larry’s birth and death certificates.  He handles them gently and with great reverence when he shows them.  He pulls out his brother’s Minnesota driver’s license.  

"I only know how to do two things. I know how to work with the dirt and I now how to cook. I work hard and I’m honest. Those qualities don’t amount to much when you are trying to get a job.” — Terri Schweppe

“I look just like him,” Schweppe says, smiling while his voice cracks.  “I could pass using this ID.  Right now it is one of the only pictures I have of him.  The picture on his driver’s license.”

When Larry died, Schweppe did the only thing that made sense to him.  He moved to Colorado to be near the little family he had left. “I came here in pain,” Schweppe said.  “I had $600 when I moved out here. I thought I could find a job as a short order cook and get an apartment. I thought I could find comfort being near my sister.”

He does value being near his family. Still, Schweppe feels it was a mistake to think he could move to Colorado and begin a new life. The money did not go far. His family struggled to help him.

“I am frustrated because I have tried so hard to get off the street on my own,” Schweppe said.  “I have tried to get a job.  I have done everything I can think of. Job. Save. Then a home. But everything I try to save is eaten up by my car trying to get to the day labor places.”

Homelessness now pulls him ever closer to the rising skyscrapers of Denver.  He is beginning to wonder if he can make it on his own.  He is beginning to think about going to a shelter. “I don’t like the city,” he said quietly at a coffee shop recently.  “There are too many people.  I don’t like being around people very long.  I like the open space.  I like not seeing houses next to each other.  I like the idea of the ranchers and the farmers.”

If Schweppe moves to Denver proper he may be following a more visible path to services, but that is not the goal of Denver’s Road Home, said Jamie Van Leeuwen, the executive director of Denver’s Road Home. Van Leeuwen said that Denver’s centralized services for the homeless have not had the effect of drawing homeless into Denver.

“Most homeless people in crisis would prefer to stay in the communities in which they are familiar,” he said. “There are a lot more resources available for homeless in their own communities now.”

Still, the difficulty of navigating multiple service providers across a more spread out geographical area can make accessing those services more difficult. This is not lost on Mag Strittmatter, executive director of the Jeffco Action Center. “In the old school of thinking, family was the place to turn if you became homeless,” Strittmatter said.  “But the problem is too big for family to solve anymore.  We no longer have that safety net.”

Instead, Strittmatter sees her organization as working on the front end to help families facing dire situations. “When it comes to services for someone who is between a rock and a hard place, we are as close as it comes.  We aren’t a drop-in shelter,” she said.

The Action Center offers individuals other services to solve people’s immediate needs. They have a health clinic and food pantry. The organization offers counseling and as many support services as they can cram into their medium-sized building.

“This program is for people ready to drop a pivot foot and change directions. This is a no kidding program,” Strittmatter said. “We’ll put our shoulder against the wheel for anyone, but they have to have their shoulder there next to ours.” Even then, Strittmatter knows that no matter how hard she and her staff work, or how hard the individual or family seeking help works, homelessness can still be a hard trap to escape.

The only way Strittmatter sees a hopeful view of the future for the homeless in Jefferson County is through continuing to expand the collaborations between service providers in the community. The Action Center has multiple partnerships already, but she hopes to see these collaborations expand because it is the only way she believes the homeless living in the suburbs will receive the help they need.

“Some (homeless individuals) choose not to go downtown because they are afraid of the temptations,” Strittmatter said.  “They are trying to get themselves on better footing, trying to avoid the temptations of what downtown might bring, whether it is drugs or alcohol.  But out here there are fewer opportunities for them so they find a way to exist.    

“This is why regional collaboration is so important. We need to find ways to pool funding and utilize funding in ways that there is a process so that we are not working in opposite directions of one another,” she concluded.

Schweppe has tried for several months to make life work on his terms. He has tried to get a job and a home his own way. This practice hasn’t worked for him. At every turn he has hit a wall.  Some days he spends precious dollars on gas.  Some days he spends the money on food for his dogs.  He has eaten so little while living in the car that he gets sick if he eats more than one small meal a day, he said.

As time goes by Schweppe feels more alone and hopeless in his situation.  

He says over and over: “If I can get a job, if I can save, I can get a place to stay.”

His restatement of this mantra is as sacred to him as his faith.  He believes this is how he will get off the street in the same way he believes God is guiding him and keeping him alive, he said.

He is over 50, though, and the challenges he faces are wearing on him physically and emotionally. Some days he travels over an hour to a barren farm outside Longmont where he stays with others who have lost their homes. Other days he stays in a Lakewood parking lot.

When he needs a vacation from the streets he saves enough money to stay in a motel. The rooms are small. The only amenities are a television, a bed and a shower. To most, the things taken for granted. To Schweppe they are a respite that keeps him going, he said.

“I’ve given up smoking and I’ve given up drinking trying to save money.  But it doesn’t matter.  I am cold each night.  I am lonely.  I try.  But I am discouraged,” Schweppe said. “I sometimes think about just giving up.”

He hasn’t given up, though.  He continues to look for jobs and a way to get off the street. One day he may be near Longmont talking to farmers for a job working with the soil. Another he drives and applies for a job at a diner in Lakewood.  

Every day he has a new plan.  Every day a new direction.

On the days he doesn’t have a plan he simply gets up at five in the morning to sit in line and hope for a $40 a day labor job.  He saves his money.  But the battle is impossible, he said.  The $40 he makes, on the rare days he gets day labor, tends to be eaten by his gas tank and meeting other basic needs. It is not a viable way to get off the streets, he said.

“I’m not a mathematician. I’m not a scientist. I’m not a teacher,” Schweppe said in frustration. “I only know how to do two things.  I know how to work with the dirt and I know how to cook.  I work hard and I’m honest.  Those qualities don’t amount to much when you are trying to get a job.”

Kevin Rapp stocks the food pantry at the Jeffco Action Center. The Action Center gives out over three tons of food a day to homeless individuals seeking help.

The experts don’t necessarily agree with Schweppe’s ideals of first finding a job then getting a home. Denver is investing nearly $70 million annually to provide shelter and services to homeless individuals and families, according to the Denver Road Home website.  

Among the many services Denver provides, the most touted may be the Housing First program. Van Leeuwen said that providing rapid re-entry housing to individuals in connection with wraparound services is a more successful and less expensive way to help families and individuals in crisis move from homelessness to healthy living.

He said that one would have to ask the taxpayer if it was the community’s responsibility to help those unable to help themselves.  But he does believe that the support the community has shown toward Denver’s approach and dedication to help the homeless shows the people in Denver want to help the homeless. Van Leeuwen attributes this to continued efforts to educate the public about the issue.

Denver’s continued push in the community to educate people about homelessness is spilling into the suburbs too. Strittmatter is thankful for this effect. “Denver has made the word homeless no longer a dirty word in our state,” she said.  “That has helped us more than anyone can know.”

But beyond receiving services, the suburbs are still not the friendliest place for the homeless to stay—they are simply not wanted. “We have the transient population, the chronic homeless in the suburbs too,” Strittmatter said.  “But many, many, many people who are homeless now are families.  Many are staying in motels, or in the summer they are sleeping in their cars.  It’s not uncommon that they are living in their cars.  Or they are doubled up in apartments. They just hide better.  They hide for their own protection.”

Trying to get the entire suburban community to confront the issue is extremely difficult.  The sheer geographical size and the number of cities, government and private interests in Jefferson County, for instance, make getting everyone on the same way of thinking about homelessness nearly impossible, Strittmatter said.

“In some ways when the city and county of Denver launched the Road Home it was perfect because it was one closed entity.  It is a little bit harder to put your arms around out here, and that is what we have been trying to find a solution for. We just haven’t done it yet,” she said. The county is beginning to work toward confronting the issue in greater depth as the homeless population continues to increase.

According to national figures from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for 2008, families in suburban and rural areas are the fastest growing group of homeless people. These national figures follow Colorado’s trend of homelessness. In 2008, 65 percent of homeless individuals slept in Denver whereas one year later only 60 percent slept in Denver according to a comparison between the 2008 and 2009 Metro Denver Homeless Initiative Point in Time Studies.

But it should be noted that any statistics regarding homeless populations is tenuous at best.  The transient nature of the homeless and the continued increase of homeless in the current economy make all statistics difficult to analyze with accuracy.

Schweppe is beginning the sea change
from countryman to suburban man and maybe in the future: urban man.  

He has not wanted to ask for help.  He didn’t even know he could. “I’ve got too much pride to ask too many people for too many things,” Schweppe said.  “But now I am getting to the point where I have to … It kind of lowers you to have to ask for help.”

Still, Schweppe is beginning to seek assistance. He took a first step by asking the Jeffco Action Center for help. He was pointed to Denver for further services for a single man.  

“As much as I don’t like it, I don’t think I can survive in the country,” Schweppe admitted.  “I don’t know if I can survive in Jefferson County, but there are more services.  I need help to get through this time in my life.”
He then put his last six dollars into his gas tank to drive to the Action Center.  He needs help. He hopes there is help in Jefferson County.  

When he speaks of Denver, Schweppe’s voice shudders a little.  He does not want to stay in a shelter. He doesn’t even know if he feels safe.  

Ultimately, Schweppe’s instincts tell him to continue to resist help.  He set up a meeting with an individual at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless to begin the process of getting housing, but ended up driving to Fort Collins to try and get work and to settle some private matters. He didn’t want to use the gas to drive to a shelter.

Strittmatter understands the process
Schweppe is going through, but said she believes that it is very hard to get off the streets on one’s own. Helping one family is too big for her army of staff and nearly 100 daily volunteers to confront.  She said collaboration within the community is essential.  

The Action Center knows it needs help in confronting this issue.  So does the city of Denver. “When you have a homeless individual impacted by everything from housing to food security, you need the services to help them and you need to make sure the services are accessible,” Van Leeuwen said.

The idea of homelessness being narrowed to urban environments is no longer acceptable.  This view limits the ability of communities to grow and meet the needs of those who are homeless.

“There are some out there who think that the problem should be solved because homelessness affects property values.  I guess that gets some on board to solving the problem,” Strittmatter said. “But ultimately, I think, a community can be judged by how it treats the least of those amongst them—how it treats those in the greatest need.”    

Schweppe finally lost his resolution to live near family.  He did not see any way to find stability in Denver.

He eventually returned the car he was using to family.  

He gave his two dogs to a family living on a farm.

He piled everything he had into two worn canvas bags and finally climbed aboard a bus heading for Minneapolis.

“I have a job there.  I will be working for the same car rental company my brother did, and they are going to put me up in an apartment and give me a car,” he said. It was his plan all along.  Find a job, then a place to live.  He couldn’t do it in Colorado.  

Schweppe wanted to get off the streets on his own.  He didn’t want help, but it also wasn’t easy to find help. As he loaded the bus a friend wondered aloud if this was one last Hail Mary for Schweppe.  

Either way, the man more comfortable in the country was traveling back across the Midwest, through the barren cornfields and open country roads, to find a home in the city of Minneapolis.