Tag Archive: homeless


Johnny Colorado standing tall

With a smile on his face, just under the uniquely southern mustache, and a distinct smell Johnny Colorado walked into our lives. All Brett Stover, Will Gregg and I had to do was drive him fifteen minutes to get Johnny home, but his trip was much longer.

Given that the topic of my recent blog posts—homelessness—was overwhelming my trip to Denver as the dominant theme, it was nice to find a success story. Johnny Colorado had one, along with a dozen other colorful stories.

One of Johnny’s tales was about being robbed—of five inches in height. He claims he used to stand 5’9’’ but now only reaches 5’4’’ and the culprit is a chiropractor. With all the poking and prodding his spine was bending in all new directions, but he kept going back. The chiropractor was the only thing covered after a car accident. Even though Johnny was shrinking in the passenger seat the chiropractor was not the wildest part of the story.

The doctor and his prescribed treatment, which Johnny swears by, added a heavy dose of the zany. Now, I am sure my memory is not exact, but if memory serves Johnny’s remedy involved lying on his back with one leg in the air, and massaging his thigh while blowing up a balloon. Supposedly, this ‘exercise’ was the only way he could straighten his spine. Despite the absurdity of his task, this was probably one of the easiest obstacles he has overcome.

Just meeting Johnny in Denver speaks to his life’s hurdles. He is originally from Louisiana. About the time hurricane Katrina showed up Johnny decided life would be easier in Colorado. Now, he works selling steaks and lives just outside Denver.

Johnny is a constant entertainer with many a story to tell. Discussing his job selling steaks or life around Denver he laughs and jokes while sharing life lessons gleaned from 26 years of experience. But one topic shifted his tone from lighthearted to serious.

Homelessness was more than a talking point for Johnny. He remembers when he was 15 far from his family and without a place to spend the night. His mom’s advice was to find the nearest homeless shelter, and that is exactly what he did.

Johnny started his comeback at a homeless shelter. It provided the teen with a warm meal and a bed for the night. The shelter gave Johnny the time and security to turn his life around, find work, and get a place of his own. But the shelter was not perfect.

Once Johnny found work the shelter became harder to visit. Adhering to check in times was a requirement to get a bed and Johnny’s two jobs did not mesh with the shelter’s schedule. He recalls spending nights underneath a bridge and heading to work the next morning in a suit and tie, and he was not the only one. There were a shocking number of his coworkers doing exactly the same thing. Such a statement would be hard to believe if I had not seen nearly 50 homeless people before taking 100 steps into town.

Most shocking about Johnny Colorado’s story is how quickly he fell into homelessness at such a young age. Johnny found himself homeless when most are learning to drive and tackling challenges like freshman English class. In a flash Johnny became homeless and freeing himself took years and forced him into plenty of unpleasant situations. It was a struggle to break habits he built on the streets, and to form new ones.

Johnny Colorado

With a smile on his face, just under the uniquely southern style mustache, and a distinct smell Johnny Colorado walked into our lives. All Brett Stover, Will Gregg and I had to do was drive him fifteen minutes to get Johnny home, but his trip was much longer.

Given that the topic of my recent blog posts—homelessness—was overwhelming my trip to Denver as the dominant theme, it was nice to find a success story. Johnny Colorado had one, along with a dozen other colorful stories.

One of Johnny’s most colorful stories was about being robbed—of five inches in height. He claims he used to stand 5’9’’ but now he only reaches 5’4’’ and the culprit is a chiropractor. With all the poking and prodding his spine was bending in all new directions, but he kept going back. The chiropractor was the only thing covered after a car accident. Even though Johnny was shrinking in the passenger seat of Stover’s truck the chiropractor was not the wildest part of the story.

The doctor and his prescribed treatment, which Johnny swears by, added a heavy dose of the zany. Now, I am sure my memory is not exact, but if memory serves Johhny’s remedy involved lying on his back with one leg in the air, and massaging his thigh while blowing up a balloon. Supposedly, this ‘exercise’ was the only way he could straighten his spine. Despite the absurdity of his spine straightening exercise , this was probably one of the easiest obstacles he has overcome.

Just meeting Johnny in Denver speaks to his life’s hurdles. He is originally from Louisiana. About the time hurricane Katrina showed up Johnny decided life would be easier in Colorado. Now, he works selling steaks and lives just outside Denver.

Johnny is a constant entertainer with many a story to tell. Discussing his job selling steaks or life around Denver he laughs and jokes while sharing life lessons gleaned from 26 years of experience. But one topic shifted his tone to passionate and serious.

Homelessness was more than a discussion point for Johnny. He remembers when he was 15 far from his family and without a place to spend the night. His mom’s advice was to find the nearest homeless shelter, and that is exactly what he did.

The shelter was where Johnny started his comeback. The shelter provided this teen with a warm meal and a place to spend the night. The shelter gave Johnny the time and security to turn his life around, find work, and get a place of his own. But the shelter did not do it all.

Once Johnny found work the shelter became harder to visit. Adhering to check in times was a requirement to get a bed and Johnny’s two jobs did not mesh with the shelter’s schedule. He recalls spending nights underneath a bridge and heading to work the next morning in a suit and tie.

Spending days in an office and nights under a bridge was a tough adjustment, and one Johnny was not living alone. There were a shocking number of his coworkers doing exactly the same thing. I would find such a statement hard to believe if I had not seen nearly 50 homeless people before taking 100 steps into town.

What I found most shocking about Johnny Colorado’s story how quick the fall into homelessness came and how long it took to drag himself out. Johnny found himself homeless at an age when most are learning to drive and tackling challenges like freshman English classes. In a flash Johnny became homeless, a position he assures me is not unique. Freeing himself took years and forced him into plenty of situations we would find just as uncomfortable as sleeping under a bridge. It was a struggle to break habits he built on the streets, and to form new ones. After spending the night on a cot in a shelter and eating lunch on the street outside the same building, meeting a coworker for coffee or a nice dinner must be pretty uncomfortable.

Road Trip: Shelter in Colorado

Will Gregg (Left) and Brett Stover (Right) on the Continental Divide Trail near Herman Gulch.

On the second day of my four-day Spring Break road trip to Colorado, we finally made it to the capital and it turns out Denver has homeless people too.

After about ten hours in the truck the previous day, Brett Stover, Will Gregg and I rolled into Denver with nothing on our minds but lunch and a little adventure. By the time we walked a few blocks into town we stumbled on some others in a similar position. About 25 homeless people were eating lunch outside a local shelter.

There was no shouting, yelling, or drunkenness to report. Frankly, everyone was calm and dignified. Less than a block later we passed another shelter with a similar number of people outside, just sitting in the sun. Although these people would never be mistaken for millionaires, they were not easily identifiable as homeless either.

If either of my roommates brought home one of these homeless people and presented him as a coworker I would not bat an eye—and not just because my roommate brought home two homeless people the previous week.  Every person outside that shelter looked no different than the majority of people I interact with every day.

I guess that is what the shelter has to offer. Thanks to a hot meal, shower, and place to spend the night homelessness does not have to make these people any different. Instead of worrying about the basics of food and shelter people are free to find work and end the cycle of homelessness.

Hopefully that is what a homeless shelter could accomplish right here in Kearney. With a little community support a Kearney homeless shelter could provide hope, get people off the streets, away from crime, and back to life on their own terms.

Homelessness: streamlined

Living homelessness was the goal of the United Way of Kearney’s homelessness awareness event in 2009. That crucial experience is exactly what Kearney needs as the city decides whether or not to open a homeless shelter.

In big cities homelessness is a problem that people must confront every time they are stopped by a panhandler or pass someone sleeping on the streets, but in Kearney the problem is hidden. Our nationally low unemployment leaves most of our population unfamiliar with homelessness, and uncomfortable with the homeless as a result. But our discomfort does not compare to that of someone struggling just to live and eat.

Just how fun is it to be homeless? I sampled it one night, and I do not need seconds.

My fellow UNK exchange student Amanda and I were half way along the 3-hour train ride to the airport in Amsterdam on our way to tour Athens, Venice, and Rome when we hit a roadblock. We had missed the last train from Rotterdam and would be forced to spend the night.

Not having a single person to call for help was a lonely feeling, but not unlike the feeling homeless people experience every night. At 2 a.m. Amanda and I were finally kicked out of the train station. We dressed for the tropical weather we never reached, and it was too late to find any place to spend the night.

The bus stops in front of the train station offered the only windbreak, and a weak one at that. After less than an hour shivering in our shorts and T-shirts we needed a change. We emptied our bags to put on every piece of clothing we packed, and used our towels as blankets. It was about as warm as it was fashionable.

I discovered the real chill in the air that night thanks to the whip of the gray tail of a trench coat. It opened to reveal a faded fanny pack on top of a dirty shirt and pair of pants, topped with a worn fishermen’s cap that hid the face of its wearer. Countless worries flooded my imagination.

Like most Nebraskans, my experiences with the homeless came largely through the TV. On the tube homeless people are either the source of violence or the target, and I did not want to be either. It was passed 3 a.m., I was wearing four T-shirts and a towel, and sleep was not an option.

What would I do if this man demanded the money for my trip? What if he tried to take our possessions? What if he attacked me, or worse Amanda? Could I defend us?

There are more than a few occasions when men in their early 20s feel bold or brave—this was not one. Of the five hours Amanda and I spent outside that train station in Rotterdam not one minute was spent in comfort. Uncertainty and fear were constant and only left when the sun rose and the train carried us away.

Leaving Rotterdam was a relief, but for the man in the trench coat that night may never end. During the day he is harassed by people like us while he struggles to even find a meal or bathroom. At night, he must defend his priceless possessions, like the coat that kept him warm on that chilly night, or the pack where he surely keeps anything of value. At any point he could wake up on the other end of a knife from someone ready to take his life for his faded pack and dreary jacket.

Kearneyites would do well to remember that the feelings of uncertainty and fear they feel around the homeless, are shared by the homeless. The main difference for the homeless is that the fear never ends.

Critics of a Kearney homeless shelter fear an increase in crime, and they are probably right. Inevitably whether for a crime of necessity or otherwise, some homeless person will be arrested. But the price of a broken car window or a stolen I-pod is insignificant compared to the relief a homeless shelter would provide. In fact, given the extreme poverty some people live in, maybe we would all be better off without those I-pods in the first place.

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