By Sarah Harvey
Joe Osckel has been vending the Denver VOICE with style since 2007. A sharp dresser, Joe takes pride in his appearance.
“There’s no sense in being all dirty,” said Joe, who is especially good at finding bargains at Goodwill and Ross.
Joe is part of a population that is increasingly difficult to find in the Mile High City: he’s a Colorado native, born in Denver in 1958. Joe’s family lived in the Curtis Park neighborhood; his grandmother owned a house near 30th Ave. and Downing St.
When he was two, Joe contracted polio. The disease left his right leg underdeveloped and gave him scoliosis.
“When I was little I always fell,” said Joe. “I was constantly falling down because I was pigeon-toed and tripping over my feet.”
Although Joe was born in Denver, he moved to California when he was five and spent the rest of his childhood in Oakland. In order to fit in, Joe hung out with a tough crowd—a group that did not prioritize school. He dropped out at 17.
“I figured, when you graduate from high school you have to go to work, so I might as well get a jump on it,” he said. In theory, Joe’s polio-related injuries should have disqualified him from joining the military or doing hard labor. But without a diploma, Joe didn’t have many job options.
“The doctors said I could never go into the military and I couldn’t do hard work. First thing I do is, I go into construction,” said Joe with a laugh. His first construction job was working with a demolition crew.
At 20, Joe returned to Denver. It was 1978, a time when the city was booming again but still relatively affordable. He was 20 years old, and found work as a hod carrier—a brutal job that involves carrying bricks and other materials on one’s back using a three-sided box.
“No education, so I had to use my back,” Joe explained.
According to Joe, Denver was pretty great in 1978. “But then everyone started moving here from California and Texas,” he said.
A combination of factors led to Joe’s first experience with homelessness in the late 90s. Bricklaying work was seasonal, and in colder months it was difficult for Joe to find enough hours to make ends meet. At about this time, Joe also ended a relationship with a woman he was living with who had substance abuse issues.
Joe had his own issues with substance abuse, specifically heroin.
“It’s been around me all my life,” said Joe.
When Joe lost his apartment, he first stayed at the Denver Rescue Mission. But after several months in the emergency men’s shelter, Joe began sleeping outside. Although he never felt unsafe in emergency shelters, he didn’t enjoy the company of some of the other residents. He also got fed up with all the waiting in line.
“I call it the homeless shuffle,” said Joe.
Joe slept outside for several years—although he doesn’t technically consider it sleeping outside, because he always took shelter in parking garages.
In 2007, Joe found the VOICE through word of mouth. He was no longer able to work construction or day labor jobs.
“I needed money, and I never was much for stealing, so I started selling the VOICE.”
Joe stopped using heroin five years ago, and finally started collecting Supplemental Security Income (SSI) four years ago. Now Joe is in a transitional housing program with New Genesis, where he has worked his way up to a shared apartment.
“I wasn’t sleeping outside because I wanted to,” said Joe on why he finally decided to seek more permanent shelter. He was tired of looking for places to sleep in parking garages, and found the New Genesis program. It was the VOICE that finally provided him with a way to earn enough money to secure a bed there—Joe has to pay $65 a week for his spot with New Genesis.
The next step for Joe is to find a permanent apartment; the New Genesis program he’s in only lasts for two years, so Joe has 16 months left to figure out his next move. Though he doesn’t know exactly where he’ll be two years from now, he knows one thing: he doesn’t see himself ever going back to sleeping in parking garages. ■