Friday, December 7, 2012

A Helping Hand

There was an old TV detective show, all in black and white, called the “Naked City.” It was based on a very good movie, also black and white, by the same name. The TV series had a tag line, “There’s eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”

The city was New York. It has grown since then.

My city is Longmont, Colorado. What? Where? I know, no-one has heard of it. I usually tell people it is the other big city in Boulder County and we’re 35 miles northwest of Denver.

Longmont has also seen significant growth. It was about 12,000 when my wife Linda first moved here in 1964. It was about 20,000 when I moved here in 1974. Now it is pushing 100,000. This town and this county and basically the whole Front Range of the Colorado Rockies is a high tech region. We don’t stack up to Silicon Valley, but then nowhere does. There are probably a few other places that have more high tech companies and employees than we do. I’m thinking Route 128 around Boston or maybe Austin, Texas, but I think Boulder Country and the rest of the Front Range is probably around number three or five in top technological centers in the U.S.

Now with all this fancy high tech comes well paid jobs and highly educated employees. So we’re a pretty nice town with a balanced budget, lots of parks and open space, miles of trails, museum and a recreation centers, services for young and old, and plenty of educational and recreational opportunities.

But, like any good-sized burg or major city, we have our problems too. We have citizens on the lowest rung on the income ladder and we have homeless people. There are people that don’t have enough to eat, warm clothes on a chilly night, or even a place to sleep. Although we’re pretty big as western towns go, we are outsized by the county seat, Boulder. So we don’t have a government run homeless shelter, it’s in Boulder which is 12 miles away and hard to get to if you don’t have a car or even bus fare. We have some government programs that put families up in local motels, but for the rest of the street people, they have to depend on help from volunteer groups.

That’s OK. Sometimes the best solution is just getting involved with your neighbors and lending a helping hand. There are several volunteer organizations in Longmont to provide that help. Their mission includes both feeding the needy and providing assistance with all the little things homeless people lack, like food, clothing, access to showers, haircuts, job assistance, training, housing, and transportation when needed.

I volunteer with these organizations and staff a street patrol that provides services and transportation every night of the year to bring comfort to these street people. Several times a month I drive a van to a central location where we provide upwards of 60 hot meals prepared by other volunteers to anyone in need, no questions asked (other than some simple demographics data we collect). In the van, we have sleeping bags and blankets, coats and sweaters, pants and shirts, socks, gloves, hygiene items, belts, shoes, and any other necessities needed to survive.

About half of the homeless in Longmont find shelter with family or friends. A few sleep in their cars. Some have overnight accommodations at hotels or motels. About 20% are dependent on shelters for overnight, especially on freezing nights. And about 10% live on the streets in parks and alleys except, maybe, on the coldest nights. Some are just here for a night — passing through. Some make Longmont a permanent home. You quickly learn them by name.

After distributing meals to several locations, we then provide transportation to anyone needing access to shelter. We carry a phone and our number is well known among the homeless population and they know we can be contacted any night between 6:00 PM and 10:00 PM to provide what is needed. It may be surprising that many homeless do have cell phones. We go beyond that, seeking out individuals who are in danger and convincing them to spend the night in warm shelter or, at least, take provisions to safeguard their evening.

We work directly with the Longmont Police providing transportation to hospital and to the Alcohol Rehab Center in Boulder. We are often called upon to take over in cases where the police have completed their part of a call.

The Story

This is the story of one of those requests. It was about 9:00 PM on a cold evening with the mercury near 20 degrees. My partner and I were cruising the different homeless gathering places making sure people had food and clothing and transportation to shelter in preparation for another cold Colorado night. We received a call from police dispatch asking us to assist the officers at a local transient hotel.

Upon arrival we found two empty police cars with emergency lights ablaze blocking one of the lanes on Main Street. We parked behind the police cruisers, and I went into the hotel and located the officers. They were assisting a young man in his mid or late twenties packing up his belongings. Apparently he was being kicked out of the hotel. They asked if we could provide transportation to one of the church run shelters. Of course we agreed and we drove around to the alley to await the young man.

/> When he walked out the back door of the hotel, I assisted him loading his backpack and black plastic garbage bag filled with clothes into the back of our van. Backpacks and garbage bags are common luggage for street people, although you will also see the occasional rolling suitcase.

As I loaded his belongings in the van, he started to tell me his tale. He had just gotten out of ARC (Alcohol Recover Center) in Boulder that day, and he and his girl friend were making dinner in the hotel room when she had a seizure. The police and ambulance were called and she was transported to the hospital leaving him behind.

I don’t know why he was being kicked out of the hotel. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to be cooking in the room or maybe the women had paid for the room or … I didn’t ask. We’re there to help, not to interrogate or judge.

He was not familiar with Longmont, and I explained we were taking him to a shelter at the other end of town. He asked if we could drive him to Boulder, and I explained we could not when there was shelter here. He asked if we could drop him at the hospital to see his girlfriend and that wasn’t really a good solution either since hospital visiting time was over, and I was concerned about his well being too. I could not let him use the organization’s cell phone because we need it available for our use, so I told him I could call the hospital on my cell and check on how his friend was doing.

I called the hospital and got the room where she was staying. I gave him my cell, and he talked to her on the ten-minute ride to the shelter. She was OK and recovering, and I later explained that someone from the shelter would give him a ride to the hospital in the morning. It touched me to hear him tell this girl that he loved her and that he was going to take care of her. The needy helping those in need.

He was very relieved to have spoken with her and understanding what would happen the next day. When we arrived at the shelter he asked if he could smoke a cigarette before going in. That isn’t a problem, and I stayed and talked to him while my partner went into the shelter to check him in. We talked for several minutes, and he explained he had not spoken with his parents in over a year and they were probably quite worried about him.

I suggested he use my cell phone and call them right then and talk. They lived on the west coast, so it was an hour earlier. He happily agreed and ended up talking to his parents for thirty minutes.

My partner and I spent that time with the shelter staff. We’re all good friends and my son, Mark, has worked at the shelter off and on for the last five years, so we had lots of things to discuss.

When the young man finished the call with his parents, he asked if he could go back outside for another cigarette. The shelter doesn’t allow smoking inside and it was about 10:00 by now and the shelter has rules to prevent drinking or drug use, so I went out with him. We talked for half an hour and he explained how he thought he’d reached the bottom of his life. He could not believe that we were there to help him. He kept saying that he wasn’t worth it.

I told him that he was wrong and that all life is precious. I explained the services we could offer, gave him our organization’s phone number, and just acted as his friend. He said that he was certain he was going to start drinking again that very night when all these things happened, but now he had some hope.

We left with a handshake and then a hug and he kept saying how thankful he was for the help and “God bless us.”

There are thousands of stories on the street. This has been one of them.

I don’t know the rest of that story. I haven’t seen him these last few weeks, although I’ve kept an eye out for him. I sure wish him well. I pray that I was just what he needed at that lowest point in his life, and that he is now reconnected with parents and starting to climb out of the hole of poverty and alcohol.

I am not doing this for the victories. I’m not doing this for the stories. I’m not doing this because I think a Christian should do this — although Christians should.

I am doing this because of that young man and others like him. Some are 18 (or younger). Some are 60 (or older). They just need help … and hope. That’s why I’m doing it.

Originally written January 9, 2012.

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