I got an email last week from a friend of a friend. Heads up: There’s a bloody photo in this story.
The emailer and I had talked once previously at a bar, mostly about homelessness. His name’s Adam Thomas, and he had told me that the number of people living on the streets of his neighborhood, Ballpark, was really bothering him.
This constant presence, he said at the time, was the reason he woke up a number of times to piss and human feces on the doorstep of the loft he owns. Once, he said, he walked out to a fight between a guy with a knife and a guy with a golf club.
So, he was writing this past week with an update: He had been attacked by an apparently homeless man wielding a bong.
Thomas was driving his Volkswagen van back into town after a recent weekend in the mountains. Just around 9 a.m., he pulled up to a red light at Lawrence and 22nd streets, he says. I’ll let him take it from here:
“As I got through the intersection, right in front of Mile High Spirits, a deranged homeless guy came running from the sidewalk (…) and threw a glass bong in my face,” he wrote. “My driver side window was open, so it smashed me and gashed me in the mouth, necessitating 7 stitches at the ER.”
Important to note — Thomas admits he did not see this man, and no one has been charged, so there’s no way of confirming whether or not he is homeless. Thomas assumes so, fairly or not, because of the amount of homelessness he sees in his neighborhood. To me, this attacker was obviously unwell, but that’s not the same thing as being homeless.
Thomas continued: “It was totally unprovoked (…) The homeless situation is out of control. I wish it was an ACLU lawyer that this happened to, or one of the suburbanites that comes down here to feed them and leave styrofoam trash everywhere.”
He’s referring there to the American Civil Liberties Union’s persistent criticism of the city of Denver’s approach to homelessness. The nonprofit has argued against the city’s policy of banning suspected drug users from parks, and spoken out against the “sweeps” that clear homeless people from places like Ballpark and the South Platte.
A crime report filed by a Denver police officer included the same story, based on the victim’s statement, and noted the injury.
I didn’t really know what to make of this.
I think that a lot of violence associated with homeless people gets overplayed. Pipe-wielding-guy-on-16th-Street dominated the summer news cycle, and yet he didn’t seriously injure anyone. The supposed crime wave on the Mall didn’t show up in the data.
But Thomas, obviously, had experienced this terrible thing. This is exactly the type of encounter that drives people to become contemptuous and dismissive of homeless people even if the cause of this problem is not homelessness but unchecked mental illness. It’s what makes people say, “Not in my neighborhood.”
“Since the attack, I’m definitely more leery and stressed out any time I am outdoors in the neighborhood,” Thomas wrote in one email.
“I definitely have a more negative, distrusting opinion of the people I come across. Before, generally, they didn’t really bother me.”
The sweeps, he wrote in a follow-up, had worked to clear people out of his neighborhood for a while. For him, that was a relief. Advocates for homeless people are “totally insulated” from what’s really happening, he wrote.
“I hold the ACLU totally responsible for my disfigurement,” he told me.
I let that sit for a few days.
Then I asked: What would you change?
I presented him with a few arguments against the sweeps. Aren’t the streets public spaces? Don’t people have a right to rest?
His response: “Is the sidewalk in front of my place truly public space?” He noted that landowners in Denver have to pay to maintain their sidewalks.
So where did he want to see these people go? Where are they supposed to stop?
Thomas: “Maybe it should be diversified across more neighborhoods so that the negative effects are spread amongst more victims and the dialogue about a solution can be more balanced and reflective of reality. I’d love to sweep a bunch of them over into Cherry Creek and see how that shapes the political discourse.”
“… As I said, I realize this is a VERY difficult, multi-pronged problem. Something needs to be done, however, or the wealthy people coming here, like me, that are investing in new businesses and helping to create jobs, are going to leave.”
Thomas, who moved about a year ago from Texas, said that he knows of multiple residents who are leaving his neighborhood because of the number of people on the streets. He wants to make the point that this could have happened to anyone driving through the neighborhood. He’s healing, he said, but the bong will leave a scar.
OK — let’s hear some other voices.
I stopped by Denver Homeless Out Loud, a cooperative advocacy group that works on homelessness issues, for some outside perspective. I sat down with Ray Lyall and Benjamin Dunning and talked over Thomas’ story with them.
I don’t think people without homes should have to answer for every other person who does something wrong while homeless, but I was interested to hear how they as advocates would address someone like Thomas. Is there anything to be done?
First, they moved to defuse the idea that violence is a homeless problem. Reporters like me will focus on a 16th Street fight for weeks, they noted, but move on from a domestic shooting after a day. Why should an act of violence by a possibly homeless person be a reason to expel dozens of others, they asked?
“If that’s what happened, that man should be in jail. Not that homeless man, that man,” Lyall said of the attack. “If you break the frickin’ law, you go to jail. But if I’m sleeping on the street, I have to sleep.”
Talking about a “homeless situation,” they told me, is like talking about a “black problem” or a “poor people problem.”
They also raised the point that some of Thomas’ issues — urine on the doorstep, for example — are also committed by drunk people leaving bars. They said environmental changes, like more public toilets and trash cans, might improve quality of life in the neighborhood.
“Why isn’t he working with us? Why isn’t he here working with us?” Lyall asked. “Tell him to help us get bathrooms. Stop being rude to homeless people.” (Thomas says he is not rude to homeless people, but doesn’t want to engage because of what he sees as a prevalence of drugs and violence.)
Dunning argued that the neighborhood doesn’t belong to its new residents, either. Before it was Ballpark, it was Denver’s mission district – home to a cluster of services for homeless people that still exist today.
“He needs to adapt,” Dunning said.
They all did agree on one thing: Housing.
In particular, Thomas, Lyall and Dunning all want to see “tiny villages” built for people in need.
Here’s how Thomas described it: “Somewhere where land is cheap I would imagine. I can guarantee you that it will be a matter of days before it is filthy and riddled with drugs, violence, and disease.”
Lyall and Dunning are more optimistic. They want to see camping along the riverbank and in other public spaces legalized. They think that providing housing would dramatically cut the number of people on the streets.
“People are saying, ‘Oh, it’s just going to turn into some shantytown?'” Lyall said. “We’re not all irresponsible. We’re not all drug-crazed, pipe-wielding crazy people.”
“That’s why it’s important to publish other stories about the everyday life — struggle, trauma, dealing with hopelessness — and battling against the extreme reactions of guys who get to live in safe places like that,” Dunning said of Thomas.
For his part, Thomas is trying to address something that he sees as a real concern for his and others’ safety.
“I could have been anyone. A mother with babies in the car, a 16-year-old going to church….the Mayor. Literally anyone driving through this neighborhood at 9am on a Sunday morning,” he wrote.
We may, at least, get to see what a tiny village can accomplish. St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church is planning to build one about a half-mile from where Thomas reported his attack.