Tonight I want to share a tough story with you all, about one of the folks that we serve on the streets of Longmont.
The story is about an older gentleman, in his 60s, who has been living in Longmont nearly his whole life. He has been without a stable home for many, many years. Let’s call him Joe, for the purposes of this story.
HOPE volunteers first met Joe in 2007, the year the organization was founded. He was described to me by one of the founders of HOPE as “one of the original frozen guys” that the organization helped in its fledgling days. She said,
“We didn’t think he would make it past that first winter.”
And yet nine winters later, he has managed to beat the odds.
Many people who were involved in the early days of HOPE’s street outreach remember assisting Joe way back then and their stories are all fairly similar – finding him out in the elements somewhere, marginally coherent, often with an empty bottle nearby, and often in grave danger because he was inadequately equipped for the weather. They helped him with blankets, coats, gloves, and a hot meal. Sometimes they were able to take him to a shelter that was open, and other times they worried about him all night, wondering if he would be OK outside in the cold.
Joe has continued to be a regular HOPE client through the years. He is not necessarily someone who comes every night to the meal service, but is someone who we regularly transport to the shelter in the winter and who we know to go looking for if we don’t see him in the transport line on a cold winter night.
A few times last winter, I was working our outreach or transport vans and found Joe in dire need on cold nights. One night, the shelter wasn’t open and so my outreach partner and I coaxed Joe off a sidewalk where he had been sleeping, put his hands which were becoming waxy into gloves with handwarmers inside, and gave him a sleeping bag. Another night, when we found him on a cold, damp piece of cardboard, we were able to offer him a ride to the shelter.
He kept saying “Thank you, God! Thank you, HOPE!”
Nights like that are tough for me. It’s scary to see how easily someone could freeze to death on our streets and it’s deeply sad to see another human being in such dire need. But I’m proud to be part of an organization that recognizes the importance of each life and provides such vital services to the most vulnerable members of our community.
Of course, we aren’t always able to help everyone who is in need. One night two winters ago, Joe lost some toes to frostbite as he had been sleeping in a bus shelter on a night well below freezing. That night, our outreach teams did not spot him to take him to safety, and we found out the next day that he had been hospitalized and had undergone an amputation.
Joe suffers from an alcohol addiction, and without HOPE, it’s very likely that he would have lost significantly more than a few toes over the past 9 winters. He has struggled with his addiction for so long that many people have given up on him. But he knows that he can always count on HOPE for a hot meal and words of kindness.
When I first started writing this article, I hesitated to post it because it didn’t have a clear or happy ending. This was a case of someone who unfortunately was not moving forward, was unable to conquer his demons and had stayed in relatively the same place for many years. It’s not the kind of story people like to read. But it also seemed important because:
Sometimes that is all HOPE volunteers are able to do for our clients: show them love and encouragement and make sure they are safe for the night…one night after another.
And in some cases, that makes all the difference.
In the months that have elapsed since i began writing this, I have had the pleasure of seeing Joe during the summer months and he looks great. Both times I saw him, he was clean-shaven, sober and almost unrecognizable from the freezing, disheveled man who I had encountered on a piece of damp cardboard months before. If I didn’t know better, I would say that it wasn’t really Joe. But it looks like he is finally succeeding in turning over a new leaf.
I hope that the change will stick for him and that maybe this winter, he will have a place to live.
Maybe, just maybe, for the first time in 10 winters, HOPE volunteers won’t have to worry when they don’t see Joe in line for the shelter.
Christina Kay, Program Manager