Personal Profile: Big Man in the Nut House - Big Al, an ex-Vietnam tank crewman, dishes out 400 lbs of wisdom on life in public housing.

Published August 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 7

text and photographs by Tom deMers

Tom deMers is a writer and former HUD property manager. He lives in Longmont, Colo. “Big Man in the Nut House” is a chapter taken from his unpublished book titled “Living in the HUD.” Names have been changed at the request of concerned parties.

Hobo Camp
Technically, Big Al was never homeless. He lived east of Boulder in a Tuff Shed. Times being what they are, Tuff Shed living may be a lifestyle more people want to look into. If so, Big Al is your guy. We spoke on the patio at Pineview, a public housing facility I managed. A cautionary note: talking to Big Al is like driving down an old country road, lots of twists and turns before it ultimately reaches its destination.   

“I stayed in the Tuff Shed while out at the hobo camp near the creek,” he tells me. Several years. “Digger lived there too. You know Digger?”  The name was familiar. “Yeah, he lived there. He came up on the list for Pineview, but they wouldn’t let him in. He had some real bad habits; they must have found out. Probably good. He used to shit on the floor and wipe his ass on newspaper and throw it in the corner. Hank loved everybody, but he finally asked Digger to leave.”

“Who was Hank?” I asked.

“He was a lawyer, but he was a hippy at heart. Great guy. He owned this land by the creek and loved to have us there with him. People came and went. Some guys had tents. Hank lived in a trailer,” said Al. “I had the Tuff Shed.”

The Tuff Shed sounded tough in the winter. Not for Big Al.

“Hey, it had a door. I ran the space heater, turned on the TV and sat in my old leather chair. It was great. Of course there was no running water. Unless you were Digger, you had to crap in the Porta-Potty. That was tough.”

“How come you left?” I asked.

“Had to. We all did. The county rousted us out and cleared the land. Some guy got tagged for shoplifting. The police came out looking for him and discovered us all. I mean, they went bush to bush chasing everybody out, except Hank. Lucky for me, just at that time, I was offered public housing at Pineview and two other places. I’d already turned down Section 8 because they were paying only $275 of my rent, which I’d have nothing left for food or doctors or anything. But now, two years later, my social security was turned on, and I had enough to make it work. Then, you showed me this place with its great view of the hills. I said, ‘This is it!’”

Big Al

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Art Feature: Ravi Zupa

Published August 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 7

by Natalie Covert

Ravi Zupa can’t say his life has changed since the recent “world ending” recession. The Denver artist continues to live simply and make art daily.  He works independently and sets his own schedule, being sustained through art sales, video projects, and his recent Westword MasterMind Award for Video/Film/Multimedia. He moves easily from making multimedia compositions rich in illustration, to short films and music videos.

To know Ravi and see his self-portraits is to witness contradictions he uses throughout his artwork.  His self-portraits can suggest an intense character—bald with a straggly beard and dark piercing eyes; face-to-face, he reveals himself as quiet and humble—if not sweet.

Drawing from various religions and cultures, Zupa creates a myriad of mythological scenes featuring contrasts of character.   A Mayan God holds a pistol to his neck.  Armed soldiers bare the wings of an archangel.  A multi-armed Robot God sprouts from a lotus flower. 

By combining a wide assortment of icons, Zupa compels viewers to unveil the mystery behind his sometimes obscure connections.  Taking the opportunity to ask him some questions, we interviewed him about his work and inspirations. 

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News Briefs: Since the recession...

Published August 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 7

Homelessness in Colorado is on the rise. According to an annual homeless assessment report released last month by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 14,747 Coloradans were homeless in 2008, 3.7 percent more than the number of homeless in 2007. BJ Iacino, spokeswoman for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, expects to see a much more dramatic increase when HUD’s 2009 study is published. Since the 2008 study was conducted, the CCH has seen an increase of over 20 percent in the number of newly homeless families seeking assistance. While nationally the number of homeless families seeking shelter increased by 9 percent, the number of homeless families seeking shelter in rural and suburban communities increased by almost 56 percent. Colorado not only has one of the highest concentrations of homeless people in the nation (.3 percent of its population), it is also one of only eight states where the number of unsheltered homeless was greater than the number of sheltered homeless.

—Sarah Harvey

News Briefs: Whistleblower at Cigna

Published August 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 7

After a year of hanging in the wings, Wendell Potter, former vice president of public relations at Cigna, is blowing the whistle on healthcare insurer practices that he says have crippled our system. At a June hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, Potter testified that Cigna regularly purged customers. Potter described purging as a routine practice in which underwriters would “jack up” already expensive insurance rates when a small business policy was up for renewal. The rates would be raised so high that employers would be forced to drop their policies. Chris Curran, a Cigna spokesman, denies the company engages in this practice.

Potter now serves as Senior Fellow on Health Care for the non-partisan Center for Media and Democracy. He supports legislation that would give people the opportunity of joining a government health care plan. Considering the current debate in both the public and in Congress, Potter said in an editorial column on CMD, “remember this:  whenever you hear a politician or pundit use the term “government-run health care” and warn that the creation of a public health insurance option that would compete with private insurers (or heaven forbid, a single-payer system like the one Canada has) will “lead us down the path to socialism,” know that the original source of the sound bite most likely was some flack like I used to be.”

—Sarah Harvey

Feature: Aftershock - Addressing secondary trauma in a setting mindful of both clients and service providers

Published August 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 7

by Mandy Walker
photos by Adrian DiUbaldo

Barbara molfese sits in her small office at the Boulder Valley Women’s Health Center and remembers a client she counseled about an unintended pregnancy. The young woman, dressed in boys clothing, told Molfese about the incest and sexual assaults she’d experienced beginning when she was just five-years-old.

“You could just feel the pain sitting in a room with her,” said Molfese. “I felt heartbroken for her for the next couple of weeks. Sad, depressed. I just kept seeing her, picturing her in my mind.” Molfese, counseling supervisor and chaplain at the center, knew she was suffering from secondary trauma.

Like Molfese, Rene Brodeur, program director at the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, can recall traumatic events, like attempted suicides or violence and the impact they’ve had on him. He also knows there are times when he can’t identify a single specific incident and yet has found himself experiencing secondary trauma.

Rene Brodeur, left, and Janet Walker of the Boulder Shelter for the homeless have a meeting along the trails west of the shelter.

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