Personal Profile: Laying Tracks with Jack McConaha

Published October 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 9

by William Hillyard

Jack McConaha answered my knock in a white t-shirt.  “Come on in; have a seat,” he said.  “Say hello to the kids.”  

His ‘kids,’ two toy poodles, yipped at me from the side of the king-size bed that practically fills the windowless living room of his sprawling Wonder Valley cabin.  The dogs’ bed and food and water bowls sat in the rumpled covers.  The whoosh of the swamp coolers covered the room with a blanket of white noise, reducing the TV at the foot of the bed to a murmur.  

Jack disappeared to finish dressing.  “Must have picked up a nail,” he shouted from deep within the warren of the house.  “I checked the air in my tires this morning and one was a little low.”  It seemed he was continuing a conversation that had begun before I arrived.   “Don’t matter,” he went on, “it’s just down a couple of pounds.”  

Chatting constantly, he told me he doesn’t like the Firestone tires that came on his new patrol Jeep.  He’s going to replace them, he said; get BF Goodriches—they self-seal if you get a puncture.

Jack reentered the room dressed for his desert patrol; summer weight camouflaged fatigues—Marine Corp issue—draped from his short, stout frame, a 40-caliber Smith and Wesson on his hip.  The tin badge on his breast designated him “Captain of Security.”

Jack’s hand, resting on the grip of his pistol, showed the faint scars of the welding accident that earned him his lifetime of disability checks, the money he has lived on for his nearly 40 years in Wonder Valley.  

He came to this hardscrabble desert enclave when it was still largely peopled by pioneering “jackrabbit homesteaders” brought to this area by the Small Tract Homestead Act of 1938, which carved Wonder Valley into five acre parcels free for the taking.  All you had to do was to “prove up” your parcel: clear the land, build a cabin.  When Jack arrived here in the early 1970s, some four thousand cabins flecked this remote patch of desert.  These days only a thousand or so still stand—and half of those sit vacant.  The remaining few house the snowbirds and retirees, artists and writers, drifters and squatters that live out here along Wonder Valley’s nearly 400 miles of washboard roads.

Jack volunteered as a fireman when he first arrived; even did a stint as chief of the area’s small all-volunteer brigade.  Now he’s the one-man security force patrolling the valley’s lonely roads.  Some people come to these abandoned cabins and empty desert from “down below,” from L.A. and that mess down there by the coast, to cook up drugs or dump a dead body or just wander out into the saltbush scrub and blow their own brains out.  Jack told me about the Wonder Valley man he came upon, standing in the sandy lane, bashing his wife’s head with a rock. He told me about the meth labs he busted, the all night stakeouts, the search and rescues.  He told me about the people he’s helped, how they tell him how much they appreciate what he does.  He talked of the commendations he’d been awarded, citations, newspaper clippings, the luminaries he met in the line of duty as the self-appointed guardian of this remote corner of the Mojave Desert.  

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Feature: From Afghanistan to the streets

Published October 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 9

text and photographs by Zoriah Miller

Zoriah is an award-winning photojournalist whose work has been featured in some of the world’s most prestigious galleries, museums and publications. With a background in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Aid, Zoriah specializes in documenting human crises in developing countries.

Young refugees from Afghanistan pass their time playing sports in Villemin Park, which has become their temporary home.

Each year, as the conflict in Afghanistan continues to escalate, more and more Afghans choose to flee their homeland in search of work and safety. They follow rumors of freedom and refuge, but often end up on the streets, stuck in yet another desperate situation.

I recently spent some time on the streets of Paris with several groups of homeless refugees from Afghanistan.  Stuck in a state of limbo, unable to gain official refugee status and the right to work, unable to make the difficult and illegal crossing to England where they would be able to gain that status and employment, they spend their days and nights on streets trying to survive.

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News Briefs: AND gets the axe

Published October 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 9

by Sarah Eckhoff

In a budget-tight year, Governor Ritter announced last month that the state intends to cut the 7.1 million dollar Aid to the Needy Disabled Program (AND), leaving approximately 10,310 individuals without monthly support checks.

Established in 1953 by the Colorado General Assembly, AND acts as an “interim assistance program,” giving $200 each month to people who meet the requirements of need and disability and are waiting for their federal Social Security Benefits to begin. SSI applicants wait an average of 22 months for benefits to begin.

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Local Buzz: Cheese sandwich policy - Some essential ingredients are still missing.

Published October 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 9

by Karolyn Tregembo

On July 21st, the U.S. House passed resolution 164 honoring the 40th anniversary of the Food and Nutrition Service of the Department of Agriculture. Rep. James McGovern (Mass.), who sponsored the resolution which recognizes 40 years of service and contributions to the citizens of this country, applauded the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service for fighting hunger in the United States, but went on to express his concern that more hasn’t been done to work toward President Obama’s campaign pledge to end childhood hunger by 2015.

This is a daunting task, particularly in light of a growing trend among public schools that has come to be known by nonprofits and the media as the “cheese sandwich policy.”

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Local Buzz: Mental Health Cuts

Published October 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 9

by Dwayne Pride
photographs by Adrian Diubaldo


“The difference between the closings before and the closings now is that this time half of the hospital will be closing down.”
—Steve Wager

As the state budget gets carved up, Colorado residents, state workers, service providers and clients are all scrambling to figure out what the looming budget cuts mean for them. One area of concern is among the health and human services. These services are directly responsible for supporting homeless and poor people in the metro area and across the state, a portion of whom are considered disabled. Fort Logan Mental Health Center is among the organizations taking large cuts to balance the budget, and the cuts could mean as many as 200 people won’t get needed mental health services.

Fort Logan provides hospital services for the mentally ill. It serves patients with complex, serious and persistent mental illnesses. There are 153 inpatient beds and 20 residential beds. Each year about 650 patients are admitted, according to hospital admissions at Fort Logan. Cuts could mean that most of these patients would need to be redirected to other institutional facilities or not hospitalized at all.

Fort Logan Mental Health Institute is losing much of its resources due to state budget reform.  Beds and employee hours are being cut, leaving employees unhappy and many homeless people without a place to recuperate. Photo by ADRIAN DIUBALDO.

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News Briefs: Homelessness on the rise

Published October 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 9

The city and county of Denver saw an increase of over 2,700 people experiencing homelessness, bringing the homeless population to a total of 6,656.  While the report was just released from the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative the survey was conducted in January. With many service providers reporting a higher volume of people requiring services since then, it is likely that these numbers are low.

The proportion of people who are newly homeless in Metro Denver is 44.7 percent up from 32.6 percent two years ago. In 5 of the 7 counties in the metro area the number of homeless went down slightly or had virtually no change. Denver and Jefferson Counties had the increases.

There were many areas in the report that made it hard to compare the data. The 2007 point in time survey appears to be generous in its count and reasonably estimates people they were unable to count, while in 2009 they only counted persons who requested services on that day or that were reached by outreach workers.



1.     Lost Job
2.     Rent or Mortgage
3.     Alcohol/Substance Abuse
4.     Family Problems
5.     Mental Illness
6.     Asked to leave
7.     Illness
8.     Domestic Violence
9.     Discharged from Jail
10.     Legal
•Six individuals stated bedbugs as the cause of their homelessness


SOURCE: 2007 & 2009 MDHI PIT surveys