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Pandemic taking mental and physical toll on homeless veterans, but this group stepped in to help

denver homeless
Posted at 12:11 PM, Jan 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-15 12:11:19-05

DENVER, Colo. — His days start in song.

“They call me 'music man,'” said Mark, who wanted to be identified only by his first name. “I play music.”

The smooth sound from his portable speaker lifts the weight of life on the street off his shoulders, even if only for a moment until reality hits stop.

The Navy veteran served in the Gulf War. His deployment overseas taught him the skills to survive at home.

“The few things I learned in there, I'm using out here,” he said. “There’s a lot of unseen dangers that you don't know."

The grim lessons he’s talking about aren’t what you’d hope to hear from a veteran who sacrificed to serve. He said it’s a truth he’d like more people to hear.

“Like conventional and unconventional way of using things for weapons, you wouldn't think about that,” said Mark. “You wouldn't think this piece of rope from a hammock that you got, you weren't thinking about putting around someone’s neck. You may have to do that to protect yourself. Is it wrong? Yes.”

However, Mark says it's also been necessary.

This is the truth he lives every day, and in this time when Mark has needed help most, he has struggled to find it.

“They don't use the funding right and create too many hoops,” he said. “I've been trying for years to get signed up for housing.”

Mark battles with PTSD, which has made it tough for him to stay in one shelter for long.

“I just…I get twisted sometimes, and I have to get away from people,” he explained. “When I get that way, I isolate myself, and I turn my Bluetooth on and I don't want to talk to nobody.”

He hasn’t received consistent mental health treatment being on the streets, but he uses his music to calm his mind.

“I like playing music, joking around, having fun, just being myself, but I get like that,” he said. “I hate when I get like that, you know, because the last time I got like that, I had to be locked up in Louisville."

Still, Mark fights to be his real self, his happy self. He works as a roofer when he can. He even has health insurance, but without a place to call home, he is afraid to get the care for the physical health he desperately needs.

“I've been going through it for 16 years. Kidney stones. I need to go, but I'm putting it off because mentally, the last time I got locked up in the hospital, I lost my stuff, so I don't wanna do it,” he said.

Building trust in a system that’s turned him out time and time again won’t happen overnight, but for the first time in a while, Mark has a temporary place to call home.

It’s helping in ways he couldn’t expect.

“When you come in here at night and take your shoes off, it’s almost like a new experience,” he said of having a place to safely sleep without fear of losing his things.

This parking lot is a safe outdoor space for those experiencing homelessness. There are showers, warm, dry tents and resources to get help. The Denver Public Library among many other local groups comes to help those experiencing homelessness get online, get medical treatment, and eventually transition into housing.

“We did set this up as a temporary response to the public health crisis,” said Cuica Montoya, the outreach and wellness program manager at the Colorado Village Collaborative. “Folks can’t stay safe during a global health crisis if they don't have access to basic sanitation needs like hand washing stations, showers, laundry, trash.”

Mark and so many others are hoping this temporary refuge from the pandemic will stay, because it’s saving them from much more than the virus.

“Having that’s security knowing your stuff’s not gonna get gone, means a lot,” said Mark.

Montoya runs this safe space and said even temporary housing can help heal physical and mental pain for those sleeping outside.

“It is such a huge factor in the well-being of people,” she said. “They don't have the trauma of being woken up in the middle of the night, or have to move all their belongings in the middle of the night, or lose their belongings. I mean, just some of these things that we think are so simple end up being huge barriers for folks living outside.”

Mark said the few weeks he’s spent in his temporary home have been his happiest in a while.

“Everybody I’ve met here I can trust,” he said.

He said while this pandemic has been catastrophic, there has been something good to come of it.

“There's a lot more kindness coming out with people that generally wouldn't interact with people like us you know, and I like it," he said.

He says kindness in the midst of crisis—like he’s found here—may just help him get the care he needs and the peace of mind he’s looking for.

“I’ve had to do some things I really didn't want to do because I was homeless. If people would get to know people a little better, it would be a better world,” said Mark.

A world where music could reflect happiness that lasts longer than just this fleeting note of escape.