Englewood and Littleton's homeless share struggles, needs in metro survey

Point-in-Time count in Arapahoe County sees homeless sharing stories

Posted 2/4/19

A dog growled from within the tarp-draped tent as Mike Sandgren slid down the snowy embankment toward it. “Hello?” called Sandgren, a ministry leader at Englewood's Wellspring Church. “We've …

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Englewood and Littleton's homeless share struggles, needs in metro survey

Point-in-Time count in Arapahoe County sees homeless sharing stories

Posted

A dog growled from within the tarp-draped tent as Mike Sandgren slid down the snowy embankment toward it.

“Hello?” called Sandgren, a ministry leader at Englewood's Wellspring Church. “We've got some resources here — socks, toiletries …”

A young woman emerged from the tent. Sarah smiled at Sandgren and his fellow volunteers during the Point-in-Time survey on Jan. 28, an annual nationwide effort by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to count those experiencing homelessness.

In just a three-block walk along the South Platte River, tents, shopping carts, bicycles and strewn belongings mark the harsh places homeless individuals have staked out as refuge in Englewood.

One year ago, Englewood police carried out a cleanup on the river — where they counted 21 campsites with about 30 people living on its east bank, along with about 25 truckloads of trash, human waste, syringes and needles — and that's just in the few blocks north and south of the Dartmouth Avenue bridge.

But in the months since, the area's homeless continue to call the river as close to a home as they have.

Sarah, 20, held back her dog, Zeus, as she answered volunteers' questions. Her last permanent address was in Texas. She and her husband have been living for a week in the tent beside the river, below a little-used frontage road behind some industrial buildings.

“I have to keep CBD in me at all times because of my seizures,” Sarah said, referring to cannabidiol, oil that comes from marijuana. “It's a lot easier here than in Texas.”

She said acquaintances with whom she and her husband stayed stole from them, so they hit the streets. Their job search has seen fits and starts, hampered by stints in jail. She's not sure what the future holds, but said for the time being, the river will do.

“The cops haven't bothered us,” Sarah said. “It's beautiful here in the morning.”

Despite a forecasted low of 10 degrees overnight, Sarah turned down Sandgren's offer of a cold-weather shelter, saying she couldn't make it before nightfall. A propane burner in her tent would have to manage.

Sarah's story was one of many collected that night.

Those who sought shelter indoors were bused to Littleton's Ascension Lutheran Church, one of only a handful in the immediate area that houses the houseless on cold nights. Some visitors unrolled yoga mats and throw blankets on the basement floor while others lined up for pizza, veggies and rolls.

Among them was James, 32, a former fast-food manager whose parents kicked him out three years ago, worn out by his alcohol-fueled rages. Now, he spends many nights under a bridge.

“I seclude myself,” James said. “I get so embarrassed by what I'm do when I'm drunk, then I drink to numb the pain. If I get a place, then I could drink to celebrate.”

Nearby was Amber, 28 years old and six months pregnant, goofing around with beau Terry while they dug through goodie bags from the church.

She came from Indiana, “honestly, for the marijuana,” she said, adding that she uses it to self-treat PTSD after a violent rape. She's also staying clear of a warrant for cutting a boyfriend back home with a knife. She was defending herself, she said. “I don't like it when men put their hands on me.”

She hopes her baby, a girl she'll name Aaliyah, won't see her like this.

“I don't want her to go through what I've gone through,” Amber said. If she could have anything, she said, she'd have a two-bedroom house, her warrant lifted, unlimited food and “a king-size bed to snuggle my baby.”

More, like Sarah, say medical challenges weigh heavy in their lives. Ross Mertens, 58, has been homeless on and off since he was 13 and ran away from home due to family issues, he said.

“I had a lot of stable years — I was married 12 years, making good money,” said Mertens, a former restaurant worker. But now, with emphysema, diabetes and arthritis, he's unable to work and can only walk a few blocks at a time, said Mertens, who labored to get around the church room.

He gets by riding long RTD routes to catch a few hours of sleep when he's not in emergency weather shelter, and Social Security income keeps him afloat as he waits on housing assistance.

A former Columbine High School student, Mertens grew up just a few miles away. He said he wishes people knew the pain of feeling invisible — he once woke up behind a bench along a jogging trail to find someone had thrown bags of trash on top of him.

“That's when I started drinking again,” Mertens said. “If I'm so insignificant, why not start drinking?”

He misses cooking and said he'd love to work, if he were able.

The data gathered by the survey won't be available for months, said Ben Nichols, Arapahoe County's housing specialist, but Nichols' team is already familiar with what's lacking in the area: affordable housing. A day shelter. Personal storage, computer access and showers.

“These aren't murderers and rapists,” Nichols said. “Just people on bad times.”

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