A Photo-essay for Public Awareness & Compassion for The Homeless, Displaced, Mentally Ill, Suffering and Forgotten
Snow covered the ground on the Front Range when I stopped into the Linden Street Cafe (now closed) in Old Town Fort Collins, CO. The snow was coming down and piling on the road and sidewalk. Looking through the windows of the cafe as I pulled up to the parking space I saw that people were warm, eyes glued to phones and laptop computers enjoying coffee and scones. Excited for a warm cup of coffee and breakfast, I grabbed my camera bag out of the car and was about to reach for the doorknob and go inside when I heard a noise that sounded like the scuffling of boots. I looked up from the doorway and around the corner to see a dressed man in a wheelchair pulling his way through the deep snow on the sidewalk with one foot. One quick glance and it was easy to deduce that he was freezing, his hands numb with pain.
I wanted to help this man but I hesitated not knowing if he would find my offer to be offensive, degrading or if it would embarrass him. Our eyes locked for a few seconds. In those seconds, which seemed like an eternity, his desperation revealed itself.
Finding the courage to speak I said “Good morning. I was just about to have a cup of coffee and some breakfast in the cafe. Would you like to join me? My treat!”
Looking up from his hands he agreed. Taking the reins of his wheelchair, I escorted him inside the cafe to a table near the front windows to find a temporary reprieve from the cold and some comfort in a hot meal.
Through slurred speech, as I pushed chairs out of the way to make room for his wheelchair, he introduced himself as Dan. I sat down across from him just as the waitress came over. I ordered both of us large coffees, water, and some menus while she watched Dan out of the corner of her eye with a condescending look.
Ignoring the pretentiousness of our host I turned my attention back to Dan. With jerky, uncontrollable gestures, he tried to rub his hands together to generate heat in his fingertips. After watching this for a few seconds I realized what I assumed was dirt on his hands and fingers was Frostbite from being out in the freezing temperatures. But, the motions of his hands couldn’t be from Frostbite alone. Something else was effecting his hands and movements.
Our judgmental host arrived with the coffees and menus placing them in front of both of us. Dan reached for his coffee and picked up the cup and set it in front of him.
Hands shaking, he reached for the sugar packets. As he tried to open the packet he dropped it. He mumbled something which I didn’t understand and attempted to pick up the packet once more. This time he was successful at opening the packet and getting the contents into the cup. As he reached for a spoon to stir the liquid he looked up at me and said he is suffering from Multiple Sclerosis through throaty speech. I nodded and reached for the spoon and stirred his coffee for him.
Breakfast arrived and Dan and I connected over eggs, toast, and bacon. He told me it was the first hot meal he had enjoyed in over a week. He’d been sustaining himself on a diet of protein bars, water, and sodas because they were inexpensive and gave him a good excuse to enter a 24/7 convenience store to get warm at night. His routine of panhandling in Old Town would pay out around $20.00 dollars per day, more during tourist seasons, from generous passersby on his corner at Mountain Ave and College – a popular area for the homeless street performers to perform, try and sell art or trade goods.
Looking at this man sitting across from me in tattered, inadequate winter clothing, unshaven, ungroomed, dirty and emotionally damaged, I understood the plight of the homeless in a way that I had never considered before.
As Dan sat enjoying his meal, he told me the story of how he started his journey on streets of Fort Collins, CO. With a gleam in his eyes he recited that as a young man he had earned a Masters degree in Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After graduating he went to work for a large engineering and architectural firm in New York City, NY.
He got married to the love of his life – a waitress from a local coffee shop in Queens he visited just to see her in the afternoons even when he didn’t want, or need, a coffee. One day he mustered the courage to ask her on a date. They fell in love and married two years later. Five years later, out of the blue, his wife left him for another woman taking everything and discarding what she didn’t want leaving him heartbroken and suffering from PTSD.
He struggled on and continued working trying to rebuild his life seeking mental health counseling. Then, in an unprecedented downward turn, he had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Upon learning of his condition, the company he worked for terminated his position citing internal policy and structural changes that cost him his insurance. He was issued severance pay and lived on his savings for over a year but then the healthcare bills arrived.
The cost of his medication to control his condition was enormous. With no support, nowhere to turn and no family Dan chooses to self medicate with Cannabis to control the tremors in his body which science has proven to be successful in repeated controlled studies.
Dan arrived in Colorado in 2017 to escape the persecution of the laws in other non-medical and recreational Cannabis states. He worked at a restaurant for a time but when his condition worsened he was let go – forcing him onto the streets and into homelessness.
Dan and I sat in the cafe for a little over two hours enjoying each other’s company much to the chagrin of our pretentious, judgmental waitress who glanced at us occasionally from across the room suggesting that it was past time for us to leave.
During that time any preconceived notions that I had about the plight of the homeless flew out the windows of my mind. I gave Dan a sum of money that would help him sustain himself for a solid month even though I didn’t have it to spare. I did so because I realized that one day I could be in Dan’s position and if it were to happen the things I would need from the humanity would be, understanding, someone to listen, someone to care and money to help me prevail against all the odds raging against me.
Ironically, five months later I found myself in a similar condition which lead to me taking on a project that documented the plight of the homeless, the emotionally scarred and the mentally forgotten.
The project is ongoing. I feel confident I’ll never stop trying to inform and educate the plight of the homeless to those who, like me at one time, harbored preconceived notions about other human beings in dire circumstances.
“A home, or not, we’re all human. We all deserve to be treated with respect and compassion. Giving of ourselves is the greatest gift we can share.”
Homelessness, and displacement, in the United States is a continuing growing public concern and can only be addressed as a nation to correct it. In the United States 553,742 people (estimated each night) are homeless. – Source: NAEH
Homeless in Fort Collins, Colorado – May 2018
Mentally Forgotten is a continuing social awareness project drawing from personal experiences becoming homeless and displaced. The project is designed to draw public awareness through art and photojournalism to communities not serving the homeless and displaced through measures to enact the establishment of homeless shelters and resources in rural areas. In the United States 553,742 people (estimated each night) are homeless. They remain in a mental state of survival suffering from mental illness and addiction.
The project spawns from events of my life in April of 2018 which rendered me displaced from my family, homeless, emotionally, mentally incapacitated and suicidal. I lived in my car for months trying to wrap my head around what had happened in my life to lead me to such a devastating chain of events and simply survive. I personally know the endless and unrelenting horrors of being on the streets – the endless worry, lack of sleep, weather, threat of being robbed or even murdered.
I was lucky enough to salvage what little remained of my life with the support of four amazing people who lent me the emotional support, housing and money to get back on my feet. They know who they are. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you did for me during that most horrific time of my life. I wouldn’t be alive without all of you. I’m paying it forward. – Hawk
“We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.