Scoundrel Time

It’s Hard to Be Housed

I’m at Meth Park on a balmy day, and all the homeless meth users are spread out on blankets like it’s a picnic.  Behind us, I see mothers with toddlers on the way to the playground.  They cast resentful glares toward the spray of homeless people across the lawn. Skateboarders swerve past impassively to the skate park.  Dogwalkers yank inquisitive dogs from their inquisitive sniffing in our direction.  People in Boulder dislike the public presence of the homeless outside, but they make it nearly impossible for them to go inside.

I want to persuade Kay Rae, a 20-year-old trans meth addict, to do the housing questionnaire with me.  She’s so young that she’d be prioritized for housing.  But she says no, that she’s happy living outside and that somehow, magically, all her needs get met.  She calls herself Princess Kay Rae Wow.  A guy I don’t know tells me to get the fuck away, but Kay Rae tells him to shut the fuck up because it’s okay for me to be there.  I sit for a minute on a blanket with Lara—Lara with her glossy auburn hair, who is always kind and warm.  She too tells me that it’s fine to live outside and that there’s nothing she needs.  She is rubbing scar cream on her hands, explaining that it really works on her burns, the ones she got when her tent caught fire while she was cooking dope in it.  Though her hands may be scarred and dirty, her fingernails are always carefully painted with polish.

In the background, I’m aware of Brian who is barefoot and wearing pajama pants and a woman’s unbuttoned cardigan.  I hear him more than see him: the ongoing monologue, the apologies for the monologue.  He keeps pulling out the waistband of his pants and talking to what he sees down there.  Someone asks him if he’s making a movie.  He says yeah.

Brian is always making a movie (a movie that exists only in his brain). The narrative goes something like this: there’s a huge conspiracy, usually against homeless people, always against Brian.  Brian does something gigantically great to dispel the conspiracy and then everyone has as much weed as they want. Anyone who happens to be around gets incorporated into the story, the movie.

Brian has a long history with the municipal court where I work as the “homeless navigator.” He’s got well over a decade of camping and trespass tickets, smoking and open container tickets. (Yup, in Boulder the tickets for smoking cigarettes in public come with higher fines than tickets for smoking weed.) In court parlance, he’s achieved “high utilizer” status, and the court is eager for me to work with him, get him off the street, anything.  If nothing else, the city recognizes that he is a drain on public resources, what with jail, court, and hospital costs.  But Brian is hard to pin down—most days he’s too high or too paranoid to trust me.  I always offer to buy him anything he wants at the fast food restaurant of his choice, and he perks up.  But then he forgets to meet me.

I finally sit down with Brian during one of his frequent sojourns in jail.  He never makes his court dates, so warrants go out and he gets picked up.  Sometimes he gets county charges too, usually for theft or possession.  I give him a couple of days to detox before I go in to visit him.  Once people have detoxed, had a shower, and a couple of meals, they’re usually glad enough to see me.  Jail is boring; at least I am a break in the routine.  Brian agrees to do the housing questionnaire and I find out that he’s been living outside, truly outside, for 28 years.  He’s the first person I’ve ever met who has no idea what his social security number is. He started using drugs before he was ten. I ask what drugs and he draws back in suspicion.

“Sorry, Brian.  No problem.  You don’t have to tell me.”

Drugs: I know that his response at this point is anything he can get.  How Brian has survived baffles me.  How he lives completely outside without a job or any shelter and somehow keeps a steady flow of illicit substances moving through his veins is an enduring mystery.

A Permanent Supportive Housing voucher is the best subsidized housing deal possible for a homeless person.  I’m trying to get Brian hooked up with PSH.  It’s offered on a “Housing First” basis, a philosophy that affirms that the first and most basic need of a human is a safe place to live.  Under the Housing First approach, an individual doesn’t need to get clean and sober or have a job.  Further, with permanent supportive housing, you contribute only 30% of your income to your rent.  If you have zero income, you contribute 30% of zero, which (obviously) equals zero.  This is a particularly good arrangement for the people with whom I work; many of them haven’t had an ID for many years, much less employment or a rental history.  Recognizing that such people will have trouble with basic mainstream life functioning, PSH also comes with case management.  Permanently: permanent rent subsidy, permanent case management support.  Unless you violate your lease and get kicked out.  Even Ben Carson accepted these terms during his tenure at HUD.


* *


Brian is by no means the only person I’m pursuing.  At first I was supposed to focus on around 29 “high utilizers” of city services, but that list has quickly burgeoned past a hundred individuals.  Frank has been living in a basement stairwell for the three years I’ve known him and I would love to see him come inside.  He’s reliably amiable—an addict to be sure, but more of a maintenance addict. Frank has a bad hip, has weathered several staph infections, and his hands are severely damaged by chronic frostbite.  

After months of polite refusals, one day Frank completes the questionnaire while he is apparently high on weed.  I ask him the questions and he answers as he uses a broken pencil to draw a beautiful and intricate picture, holding the pencil in his gnarled hands.

“I’ve lived outside for years now.  I don’t even know if I’m able to live inside.”

“I have hopes for you, Frank. “

“You seem to have a lot of unjustified hopes for a lot of us.”


Nonetheless, he does the questionnaire, I put it into the regional database, and Frank is almost immediately recognized as highly vulnerable and put in “pre-match.”  That means that we next have to get all his identification documents together (birth certificate, social security card, state photo ID) and get a doctor to give him disability verification.  At this point, Frank balks.  

“A body that is in motion, stays in motion.  A body that comes to rest, stays at rest.”


“Have you noticed that people die when they move inside?  Ray? Nikki? Robin?  People like me, we don’t last when we’re housed.”

It’s an interesting idea, but I argue with Frank that it’s more a matter of people being in such fragile condition by the time they agree to come inside—their bodies are already wrecked.  Frank’s a multi-decade meth user, but somehow he still looks fit.  I think he could live a long time, but I don’t know where he wants to live: inside or out.  

In the year following his placement in pre-match, Frank is evasive and does little to get his ID together.  I decide to take the bull by the horns and get his birth certificate.  I ask for his parents’ names so I can try to contact them and get them to order the birth certificate for me, since Frank doesn’t have the ID necessary to make the order himself.  All Frank knows is the general area in Nebraska where his mother lives and her last name.  It’s a common last name, and his mother’s first name isn’t unusual, but I start googling.

I google the name and pair it with several small Nebraska towns.  Eventually, an obituary pops up.  A young woman who died about a decade ago.  Her mother has the name that Frank gave me, and, better yet, I see Frank listed as her brother.  There is no family address, but the family asks for donations to the Leukemia Society and notes that these will be administered by a local attorney.  I google the attorney’s office and make the call.


I put everything out there in one quick, nervous blurt: “Hi, my name is Elizabeth Robinson and I’m working with a homeless man named Frank Jones.  His sister died in 2008, and the family worked with this attorney’s office in putting together a donation in her memory.  I’m trying to help Frank get housing and we need documentation, like a birth certificate, to do that.  Would you be willing to give me his mother’s phone number so I can ask for her help?”


I’ve reached the office secretary.  Oh, miracle of small towns, where they have not yet become consumed by privacy issues.  I rely on such breaches of privacy every day.  The secretary hesitates for just a second, and I’m worried that she is going to go and ask the attorney if this is okay.  But she is back in a minute with a number for me.

“Thank you!  Thank you so, so much!”

“Think nothing of it.”

Next up, I call Frank’s mother.  These cold calls are one of the hardest things I do and usually involve tears, sometimes anger.  I try to speak quickly to assure the parent that their child is still alive, because to hear the name of a homeless child suddenly in an unexpected phone call is to steel yourself for what you’ve been anticipating all along: that your child is dead.

Frank’s mother does not cry.  She is tentative, but wants to know how Frank is, if he is, at least sort of, in good health.  Unlike some parents, she does not offer stories of his youth, of how it all went kerflooey.  She is glad he is alive.  Yes, she will get a birth certificate for me.  I only feel the tension when she says that maybe she can send him a little money.  This is not something I ever ask for.

“I’d say that Frank is an incredibly resourceful person.”

“Oh,” she says with surprise, “Does he have a job?”

As far as I can tell, Frank hasn’t worked for over 15 years.  “No, but he’s always clean and tidy, shaved, knows how to get meals, never gets camping or trespassing tickets.  He never sleeps at the shelter, but he knows how to stay out of trouble, and is never found outside camping by the police.”


“Oh,” she says thoughtfully, in a tone that suggests that her definition of resourceful differs from mine.  Three weeks later, Frank’s birth certificate arrives in the mail.  I put it in his file, where it sits, with a booking photo, for over a year before Frank decides to take next steps.


* *


In jail court, Brian is staring at his hands and talking to his fingers.  I sit in the chair beside him: “Brian, the landlord couldn’t hold the apartment for you in Aurora any longer.  They had to rent it out to someone else.”

“I know, I know.  No one will ever help me.  I’m gonna die outside because they” (he casts a knowing look at the air vent) “are all after me.”

“No, Brian, you don’t have to die outside.  You just have to let me know where you are.  You’re really hard to find.  But there’s another possibility—“

He cuts me off, “My hair looks bad today, doesn’t it?  It looks really bad.”

His hair is an important feature of his wellbeing.  When it is clean and combed, Brian looks something like a weathered George Harrison with a Beatle’s mop—until he opens his mouth and the one tooth he has left, one of the upper canines, hangs pendulous and gouges his lower gums.

“Not looking its greatest, Brian, but that’s the beauty of jail: a shower, a bed, and some food.”


“True, true, but the judge is going to give me more days because I’m having a hair catastrophe day.  I should say I won’t appear today and come back when my hair looks good.”

“No, no, Brian, because here’s the thing: there’s another apartment in Civic Center, if you are willing to live in Denver.”

I wait.

Brian looks at his hands, “Oh yeah.  Yeah, yeah.  Yeah, I’d live there.  I’ve lived there before.  Yeah, I could. I would.”


“But you know they are going to steal it from me.”

“Nope, no.  This is the real deal.  This is yours.  As soon as court is over, I’m calling the housing people and telling them to save it for you.”

I’m tempted to squeeze Brian’s hand, but he’s been talking to his fingers, and I don’t want to interrupt the conversation.  I put my hand on his shoulder. Suddenly he looks up in a moment of lucidity, “Thank you.  You just keep trying.  I don’t understand it, but you’ve fought the battle against them.”

“I’m incredibly persistent.”  Behind me, Brian’s public defender laughs.  But it’s true: stubbornness is all I’ve got.

“When I move in, every god fucking damn day is going to be a good hair day.”


* *


I am over at Robin’s apartment, cleaning it out with the property manager.  He lived in it all of two months before he died.  Robin became my friend and his death hurts and keeps on hurting.  Maybe Frank is right: people die when they move inside.  Throughout the apartment, there is evidence of many visitors: tattered sleeping bags, cups overflowing with butts, cheap thrift shop DVDs to go with Robin’s thrift shop DVD player. While we are cleaning up beer cans and dirty dishes, I say, “Being housed is a lot harder than anyone thinks.  All those guys protected Robin when he was outside, and he just couldn’t tell them to beat it once he had a warm place to stay.”

We begin to exchange stories about the weird shit that people do when they come inside.  The property manager tells me about one of her current tenants:

“I kept seeing some dude in a sleeping bag on the balcony, and I warned and warned him: you can’t have guests living in your place.  He was real polite about it, always said he’d make it stop.  Then one morning, I get right up to the balcony and look up.  It’s the tenant!  So I go to him and say, ‘Why the hell didn’t you tell me it was you?’  He’s all embarrassed, says that he just can’t sleep when he’s inside, but that he’ll try to, and I say, ‘Hell, it’s your apartment.  You can sleep on the balcony if you want.’  He couldn’t believe he had the right to sleep there.”

“Yeah,” I say, “A lot of my guys have trouble sleeping inside, maybe spend some nights in the underpass with their crew.  One man told me that he only went into his apartment at night because he was afraid if he went in the day, someone would tell him he had no right to be there.  But usually people just have trouble with the bed.  There’s something about the bed.  If the place comes with some kind of ramshackle couch, they’ll sleep there.  One guy I knew set up his tent in the apartment and made camp there.”

I look in the bathroom and it is disgusting—muck on the floor, hair all over the sink.  The property manager opens a window to release the reek of cigarette smoke and inspects the damage to the doorjamb. The police had to break down the door when Robin’s friend Shug got high and locked himself inside.

“I know you liked this guy, but he was on his way to getting kicked out.”

“I know.”  It’s the one good thing: he died before he was evicted.


* *


It appears that Brian will never get an apartment because we can’t find him, because on any given day he is too paranoid to complete the paperwork, because the housing coalition people are at a conference and unavailable when Brian is in custody, because the property manager is too busy to schedule an orientation for us, because the county people in charge of homeless issues won’t help with his security deposit because he hasn’t signed up on the homeless registry they are calling “coordinated entry.”  

Brian is much less bothered by all this than I am: he’s never really believed he’d get housing anyway.  But I take this on as a combination spiritual exercise/fighting the establishment project, and on one miraculous day, I pull up to the jail with Officer Portillo, and Brian is released to our custody.  We are on our way to Denver.

The apartment Brian is moving into is right downtown in an old federal building that’s been converted into something like a dorm for chronically homeless people.  The property manager tells us cheerfully that if Brian loses his keys, he’ll have to pay for replacements, but that there are people at the front desk 24/7 who can unlock his door for him.  They will give him clean sheets and a fresh towel once a week and, she adds brightly, they spray every Wednesday for bedbugs.  At this juncture, she leads us to the elevator so we can go look at the apartment.  It smells like piss.  As we exit the elevator, I cough on the cloud of cigarette and weed smoke that assaults me.  People are lounging in their rooms and in the hallway in wheelchairs and lawn chairs.  I halfway expect someone to lift up a cardboard sign and ask me for spare change.  The apartment itself is tiny, just a single bed, tiny desk and drawers.  Just outside the bathroom, there’s a counter that includes a sink and microwave.  Brian hardly seems to notice it, says it’s fine.

I know it’s time to leave and Brian is getting restless, but I am anxious, as though Brian is the weirdest son ever and I’m his mom.  I insist that we find a case manager who promises to take Brian to a food pantry the next day and tells him where there’s a free spaghetti dinner that night.  Before leaving, I put Brian’s keys on my Boulder Municipal Court lanyard, hoping that he has a better chance of keeping them if they are hung around his neck.


I’m not back at the municipal court even 30 minutes when I get a text from Philip, one of the probation officers:

“Didn’t you take Brian to Denver today?”

“Yes.  He’s there now in his apartment.”

“I just drove past Central Park, and I could swear he was at the bandshell.”

I insist that Philip is wrong and that another homeless guy with a lot of hair is at the bandshell.  Then Philip arrives back at the court and says he is sure it’s Brian at the park.  

“Okay,” I say, shrugging.  I will test Philip: “What was he wearing?”

“A dark blue hoodie and green army fatigues.”

Fuck!  Brian, who hasn’t a cent to his name, somehow caught a bus and got back to Boulder in the same time Portillo and I did.  As far as I know, he’s never been back at his apartment since.


* *


This winter, a few homeless people freeze to death.  One is a beloved man who died on Christmas Eve.  Frank has been pondering this, and finally decides that no one is meant to live outside forever.  He agrees to get his photo ID and social security card, says he will go to the doctor and get a disability verification.  Then he will be “document ready” and we can try to get him a voucher.


Portillo and I pick him up on a Thursday morning at the free breakfast hosted by the Presbyterian Church.  I proclaim it International Frank Jones day, and we head to the clinic.  Fortunately, his doctor has known him for years.  He’s worried about Frank’s high blood pressure—it could be the damage caused by years of meth use—but he signs off readily on Frank’s disability verification, and we head off to “coordinated entry” so that we can get Frank registered, in case we need help with deposit money later.  Frank handles all this affably, but once he leaves coordinated entry, he’s jittery and says maybe next week for the DMV and the social security office.

“What’s wrong?”

“I need a cigarette.”  He starts looking for butts in the parking lot.  I run next door to the Diamond Shamrock station and get him a fresh pack.  Frank acts like I’ve bought him a new car.  He thanks me about ten times, “Really, all I wanted was one.”

Thus supplied, we go to the DMV, and the combination of Frank’s fingerprint and the birth certificate get us through.  We leave with a temporary ID that has Frank’s photo on it.  

Next up is social security.  Once again, Frank is wavering, but there is a good ice cream store near the office, and I suggest that Portillo stop there.  As part of International Frank Jones Day, I explain, we are getting ice cream.  Portillo stays in the car while I go in with Frank.  “Get whatever you want,” I offer.  I feel fine about bribes.  Maybe a milkshake?  Frank looks at the order board suspended above the tubs of ice cream and asks, “Is that a lot for a sundae?”

Clueless, I say, “I don’t know.  I never get sundaes.”

Frank looks up again, pauses, “But do you think that’s expensive for a sundae?”

Duh.  I get it.  “Not really.  Not at all.  Get a sundae.”

Frank gets a sundae.  He won’t sample the exotic flavors, just gets vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce with whipped cream on top.  It’s gone within two minutes.  We head to the social security office.

By now, I’ve spent hours sitting with homeless people at the DMV, doctor’s waiting rooms, and the social security office.  It’s as good a time as any to get to know another person.  Frank, who has never been anything but polite and pleasant, tells me what a terrible kid he was.  Adopted, like so many homeless people, he tells me that he was a terror to his mother, did things like throwing himself out of moving cars.  He enumerates his sins calmly for about an hour as we wait.  Nothing he says sounds particularly heinous to me, but I’ve noticed that most homeless people, at some point, catalogue this kind of confession as we sit together.  Frank feels a need to warn me that he’s a nobody.  Finally, his number is called and we walk up to the counter.  I’m confident that the temporary ID card will do the trick—after all, it includes a photo of Frank.  Unfortunately, the clerk tells us that nothing but a permanent ID card will work.  I whip out Frank’s birth certificate, hoping for the best, but steeling myself for the probability that our successful streak has come to an end.  

The clerk takes the birth certificate from my hands and considers it coolly.  Clearly, she feels professionally obliged to thwart our efforts.  Then she looks up at Frank and says with a smile, “I’m sorry, but this won’t do.  It tells me that you were born, but gives me no proof of your continued existence.”


Elizabeth Robinson is the author of several collections of poetry, including the National Poetry Series winner, Pure Descent.  Her recent prose has been published in Conjunctions, Curator Magazine, and New Letters.  Her poems have recently appeared, or are forthcoming in Bennington Review, Conjunctions, Image, Posit, Plume, Seneca Review, and Volt.  Thirst and Surfeit is forthcoming  from Threadsuns Press, and Encyclopedia is forthcoming from Roof Books, she hopes, in 2023.  Robinson is now the pastor of a church in Orinda, California that is preparing to build apartments for low income seniors on its property.


Image By: