by John B. Gay
I felt myself being pulled up, off my bunk. Large hands, grabbing my upper arms tightly, squeezing my biceps. One man on each side, jerking me up in one motion.
I had been sitting on the edge of my bunk, about to the point of passing out, drunk, now I was being taken – half pushed, half dragged – down the corridor by two shelter employees.
“Hey, guys,” I tried to caution, “take it easy. I have a fractured rib, don’t be so rough.” It had only been six months since I was diagnosed with that damn cancer in September, but I was feeling all of my 60 years.
I was confused. I was drunk. I had thrown down several stiff shots right before going into the facility for the night. Then it hit me all at once.
This happened 13 months ago. And, yes, the old cliché does apply. “It seems like a lifetime ago.” I have experienced a lot since then I have come to understand a lot of what didn’t make sense back then. I have “grown.” I have “surrendered” in some areas. I can accept responsibility for my actions. I realize my actions often provoked a pre-determined negative-to-me reaction. But, these were lessons that were written in chapters of my life that had not yet been lived.
But that night . . . I was somewhat incoherent. I was, it would seem, surprisingly, having trouble grasping that I was being thrown out; that I was being half-dragged out of the shelter. “What do you mean you’re throwing me out? I have a bunk here. I RENT a bunk here.”
Even as I was in the middle of this calamity, I couldn’t believe it was happening. I couldn’t believe that they weren’t hearing me. They continued dragging me to the exit, telling me that I had violated the rules, that I had brought alcohol and marijuana into the shelter and it had been seen by the staff.
Like a car having gone off a bridge, sinking slowly to the lake bottom, windows rolled up; you’re inside, in the car. You see what’s happening, you know what will happen, you’re going to drown, die, but you’re thinking, “No, this can’t be happening to me!”
It started sinking in This was real. This was happening to me. Still, I tried protesting, reasoning, “Come on, guys. I never cause any problems. I always pay my rent early, I keep my area clean . . .” I was trying to connect. Make sense.
“Come on, man, we’re in Denver Colorado! It’s late February, you can’t throw me out in the middle of the night!”
I just could not grasp the fact that within moments I would be locked out of a shelter that had become, in fact, home!
Within moments, reality set in! I was locked out. The wind was blowing. Hard. It was cold. They had given me the clothes I had been wearing earlier in the day: two T-shirts, a hoodie and a coat. They told me to come back in the afternoon to gather all of my belongings.
It is incredible how fast things can happen that completely change your life!
I am standing on the stoop, a spot I have stood on so many times before. But it looks different, well, to be honest, it doesn’t look different, rather looking out from where I stood, things looked different.
My life is changing so fast: old-age pension/retirement; cancer; no shelter. Shit is just coming at me from all directions. Sometimes I think I might not be able to hold all the parts together. I visualize things spinning out of control.
This is so unlike me, I’m the guy who has it all under control. Or, I have always managed to control the chaos I create if you know what I mean.
Like coming to Denver, well, like my whole life, but coming to Denver was basically a microcosm of my whole life. I had been working for the same company for the previous ten years in my home state of Louisiana working for an offshore catering company, as a cook on an oil production platform. Growing discontented with my job, my helpers, most of my associates and living in an environment where that seemed like the norm.
Everyone, it seemed out there in “the Gulf “ on the platforms, hates their job. That’s mostly what they talk about all day long.
So, after becoming increasingly alienated, discontented and feeling like most things were just not working out in my life, after ten years working for the same company – without notice – just up and bought a Greyhound bus ticket and left. Didn’t bother informing my employer. I decided, I’m not happy and I’m getting close to retirement anyway, I’ll just go to Denver and chill. Kick my life into low-gear. Quit worrying about “climbing the corporate ladder,” since, obviously, that wasn’t happening for me!
I arrived in Denver on June 1, 2014.
One thing that played a role in my decision to move to Denver was my drinking. I told my nephew that since marijuana was legal in Colorado – both medicinal and recreational – maybe I would be able go quit drinking, relying solely on weed for my mood alterations.
That didn’t happen. I didn’t even try once I arrived. I got into the only lifestyle I knew – smoking weed and drinking.
And, of course, the people I ended up making friends with were those who smoked weed or drank, usually both. So, my drinking eventually got me thrown out of the shelter. Sadly, I didn’t make that connection until many months later. What I saw, looking from that stoop that cold February night was a strange and freighting world. A world I thought I had mastered.
I had left home at 16, joined the Marine Corps at 17, turned 22 in prison for armed robbery . . . change has been a constant in my life.
I was always able to handle change. But I knew all too well, adversity was something that I couldn’t quite conquer. Usually, though, I was able to work with it, latch onto a hope seemingly embedded in me that had always helped me overcome the obstacles that hurled across my path.
I had come to Denver without a game plan. Not having a plan never bothered me before. So, what was different? Why was I suddenly so scared? Why was it so hard to walk away from the shelter? A place that everyone tried to avoid. But I was scared!
It was more than the bitter cold. Something in me, unseen, had changed. Was it the cancer? Was it getting older? Was it just not being able to handle one more roadblock, after all the roadblocks in my life?
For the first time in my life, I was stuck. Didn’t know what to do, where to go. But, somehow, I knew I would bounce back. So, I focus on the moment. I have enough clothes on to survive the cold night. I pulled my coat up around my neck and headed south toward downtown Denver where I knew people slept on the sidewalks.
I had been in Denver for about 18 months already. I had spent most of my time working, but I was working for a temporary service a day-labor company. So, I knew the streets, the people who were down and out. I knew a little of the world they inhabited. People no different than my friend, Steve, who even though his family tried to help him, drugs kept bringing him back to the streets.
I had left the comfort of a career to seek this uncharted adventure and now a failure to have a map, a plan, had cast me adrift. So, I call on the bravado of my past, zipped up my coat, tilt my head down so my face doesn’t get the full brunt of wind and head down the street with the naïve certainty that my noble effort would be honored by the blind scales of justice.
It was not to be. By the time I got two blocks away, my face was turning red and my cheeks were burning. I immediately saw relief when I noticed an opening in the fence by the construction site I was walking by.
Maybe it was the cold, the wind chaffing my face, that caused my inner alarm bells to go silent, I don’t know, but when I saw that that opening in the fence, I didn’t think about the worker who failed to do his job as the former foreman I had been, rather, I saw a refuge.
But things are not what they sometimes seem. I had worked quite a few construction jobs since arriving in Denver and knew my way around a construction site.
So, I’m walking by, freezing, not having a plan about what to do or where to go and here was an opening in the fence. I made my way through it. I could tell this was going to be an apartment complex. The bottom floor was almost complete. There were no windows yet, but the inner hallways gave protection from the wind and that was an instant improvement. I was drunk. What I sought was immediate relief, not a long-term solution.
I was happy. I knew things would get better once it was daylight. I was still very drunk, so I just wanted to get out of the cold, sober up, get some rest and tackle the new day that was coming at me.
All of a sudden my old optimism came back. I warmed up a little. I examined the area a little. Just inside the fence, the ground was treacherous and I had to be extremely careful not to trip.
At this point, my cancer had not progressed to the point where I was using my Rolator (a walker with wheels and a seat), hell, I didn’t even have to use a cane yet. But my walking had already begun to be affected by my multiple myeloma. So, I had to be careful as I made my way around the site. Stepping over and around the ruts caused by heavy truck traffic, I quickly made my way into the partially completed building. The ground floor was far enough along that it offered protection from the cold wind. And, protection was what I was seeking.
I didn’t mean to make such a mess of my life, I’m thinking How did this happen? I will have to “get a grip!” I somehow have to get control of my life.
As I huddle in the inner sanctuary of my newly found refuge I relax into the gentle slumber brought on by the effects of alcohol and fatigue.
Then . . . I was glaringly awakened by flashing police car lights . . . Oh, my God, I thought I was in a nightmare already; I could see, it was just beginning . . .
by Don Sands on the death of his son, Aric, 2017
Welcome to our first blog about the homeless community in Sacramento, CA, their health issues and Joshua’s House, a hospice house for the terminally ill homeless.
The first story in this web of intertwined stories begins in January 2016 when Marlene von Friederichs-Fitzwater,Ph.D., MPH, professor emeritus at California State University and associate professor, University of California at Davis, School of Medicine, retired to embark on a mission in loving memory of her grandson, Joshua Lee, who died at the age of 34 on the streets of Omaha, NB.
Joshua had struggled with drug and alcohol addiction most of his adult life and often found himself homeless, either living on the streets in a variety of cities or staying with friends. Over time, Marlene learned of his concern for others on the streets in various cities and his desire to do something with his life to make a difference. Following his death in 2014, the concept of Joshua’s House, a hospice house so that those among us who are homeless and terminally ill can spend their final days in comfort and dignity, began to evolve.
This blog is a way to share the many stories of people who are homeless and living with illnesses – and whose stories may have never been told if it weren’t for this project. It is also a means of increasing public awareness about their plight — a path for our community to understand, heal and transform. We will all die with little choice, but we hope to influence where those who are most vulnerable spend their final weeks, days, hours.
Rachel Naomi Remen
Rachel Naomi Remen
Our goal is for Joshua’s House to embody Joshua’s grace and the impact he made on others. “Everyone left a conversation with Joshua feeling uplifted.”
The journey toward creating Joshua’s House began when, early on, Marlene met with Sister Libby Fernandez, RSM, CEO, Loaves & Fishes, who immediately connected her with key people throughout Sacramento with an interest in the homeless. One of the first of those critical contacts was Moe Mohanna and his daughter, Nikky, the owner of a large vacant warehouse on the Loaves & Fishes campus. Moe ad Nikky graciously shared their commitment to the homeless and embraced the idea of using about 6,000 square feet of their warehouse for Joshua’s House.
Joshua’s House is a project of a community-based nonprofit that works closely with the homeless, whose needs and experiences are designing the form, function and breadth of this remarkable hospice, which will be one of just five such facilities in the nation.
Currently, four people who are homeless serve on the Advisory Board for Joshua’s House and the design for the facility is based on focus groups and interviews with homeless men and women. Some recurring themes that resulted were “I don’t want to be reminded that I am poor!” “Please bring nature inside.” “It can’t be drab and institutional.” “We need to be able to keep our pets with us.”
To that end, the hospice house will be bathed in natural light, have abundant open space, including fountains, greenery walls and an atrium. Initially, there will be 10 beds, with room for 10 more.
Residents of Joshua’s House will also have opportunities for art, music and writing therapy and spiritual guidance. If desired, there will be reunification services so patients can reconnect with family members.
Currently in Sacramento, the terminally ill homeless have no hospice options and are likely to be discharged from the hospitals to the streets, to night-time shelters or river encampments that are often teeming with communicable diseases. The homeless often have no place to store medication, tend to wounds or care for themselves hygienically. Most will die on the streets or on the river banks.
The need for Joshua’s House is urgent. We hope you will join us to ensure that the terminally ill homeless don’t die alone, forgotten and in pain.