PERRY: Winter is coming, along with the election. Time to rethink homeless.

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Mona Lisa at the memorial service for James ‘Jimbo’ Leach, who froze to death on a park bench along East Colfax Avenue Dec. 27, 2012
SENTINEL FILE PHOTO

It’s debatable just how bad the homeless problem is in Aurora.

What’s sadly indisputable is that nearly 10 years after Jimbo became just another victim of life on the streets, we’re having the same arguments now that we were then.

“There is one less vagrant on East Colfax,” I wrote nine years ago in The Sentinel. “He froze to death on a bench two days after Christmas.

He was James Leach, but everyone knew him as “Jimbo.” He was a veteran. He was a Sioux. He was a dad. He was a talker, 57, an annoyance, a friend, a helper and a serious alcoholic.

Like so many of the hundreds of homeless people that wander East Colfax as they pass their days, he was invisible for the many years he spent in Aurora. Like a Ralph Ellison character, he was accustomed to people looking through him, past him, almost anything but at him. That invisibility cost him his life on Dec. 27, 2012, when no one noticed him sleeping or passed out on a bench next to the Fox Theater. That night, the mercury dipped down to about 7 degrees, and his body temperature soon followed.

Homeless people are used to being unseen. Pedestrians walking toward them pretend they don’t hear or see them, especially if they hold up a sign pleading for money or make a move like they might ask for something.

For years, city officials have denied that people like Jimbo even existed in Aurora. Elected officials would pooh-pooh the notion that there were more than a few “really” homeless people in Aurora.

It was a Denver problem. Sure, there are folks holed up in flea-bag motels on Colfax, but those are just “under-housed” residents.

Now, your elected city officials, like all of us, are well aware of just how serious the homeless situation is since so many are now camping out in plain sight.

City officials often used to deny there were people in Aurora like Carlos, Old Man Tommy, Mona, Steve or Tig. They were Jimbo’s closest friends and shared his life on Colfax. They were not homeless if home is a library, soup kitchen, alley, bus shelter or whatever apartment lobby they didn’t get shooed from.

Their bedrooms were inside Dumpsters, against a warm wall, under an exhaust vent, inside an unlocked car or in a dreary Colfax motel when it got killer cold. Aurora Warms the Night has for years handed out motel room vouchers for just that purpose, just in case city officials were mistaken and the dozens of non-homeless people in Aurora needed a place to keep from freezing to death.

For whatever reason, Jimbo didn’t get a voucher that cold December night. He was almost certainly drunk. His friends and a host of the usual do-gooders and perennial volunteers in the city lamented all that when they held a memorial service for him a few weeks later at the American Legion Hall, not far from where he died.

“He was the most gentle person I ever knew,” said Steve, as he stood at the service among 50 or so. Old Man Tommy credited his life to Jimbo, saying he always had his friends’ backs when they were too drunk to look out for themselves.

“We’re all alcoholics,” Carlos said. “But he was good people. We’re all good people.”

It was easy to see just how true that was. It was just as plain that despite every opportunity to quit drinking and grab onto the American dream, they never did. Jimbo’s friends dignified his life and his death.

As I was leaving the service, an old man staggered along Colfax, nearly falling every few seconds. Like unwanted dandelions, even if one is ripped out, another one will spring up. But as exasperating as they can be, you just can’t help but smile at how wondrous a dandelion is when it’s blooming right in front of you.

Few people you’ve elected in Aurora feel that way. These folks are nothing but unsightly weeds to be mowed or shooed into someone else’s city or park.

I keep hearing how these people “choose” to be homeless. They choose booze or meth or crappy heroin over a decent place to sleep and a job to keep them there.

Jimbo never wanted to be a homeless drunk, and no one wanted for that to be what killed him. If quitting such a wretched life were easy, everyone would.

It’s election time in Aurora, and winter is coming again. Check out who’s running for city council and how they feel about people like Jimbo and how much money to put into Aurora Warms the Night.

Then you decide who you think will do the best job of keeping me out of funerals for men like him. Men who, some say, choose death over obeying the law, getting a job and staying out of everyone’s way.

Follow @EditorDavePerry on Twitter and Facebook or reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]

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FeelingsAreNotFacts
FeelingsAreNotFacts
13 days ago

You’re right, Perry. Few of them choose to be homeless. They choose drugs.

The result of that choice is most often a life of crime to support the addiction. And estrangement. Incarceration. And, finally, homelessness.

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
12 days ago

At one point every drug user–homeless or housed–chooses to try a drug. Thereafter, it is not a choice, as the drug and their addiction take control of their brains and their lives. When people first do a drug, they are not thinking about the long-term consequences, just the euphoria, and once they become hooked, it is too late. But we cannot keep our heads in the sand and say simply “All they need to do is get a job and stop doing drugs.” By that point, neither is possible and we are just kidding ourselves.

FeelingsAreNotFacts
FeelingsAreNotFacts
9 days ago
Reply to  Joe Felice

I rarely agree with you but, in this rare instance, I do.

Jennifer Roberts
Jennifer Roberts
11 days ago

I find it interesting how many people feel free to discuss homelessness who have never been homeless. Just a thought.

FeelingsAreNotFacts
FeelingsAreNotFacts
9 days ago

While I admittedly never made the choices that would increase the likelihood of becoming homeless (drug abuse being the top of the list) I have direct experience with relatives and family friends who followed their addictions to their personal destruction.

Having failed at life is not a prerequisite to succeeding at it.

Jennifer Roberts
Jennifer Roberts
8 days ago

I would argue that everyone in our society is incredibly close to being homeless by the fact of being human and having a body that will give out. 60% of the people who are homeless in Colorado have some form of disability. It is our cultural attitude toward success and failure that lay at the root of our attitudes toward people who are ill and how we feel we have a right to treat them.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTDGdKaMDhQ

vern
vern
12 days ago

Well I can say the folks that talk the talk in the city don’t walk the walk… I have offered to help but I get the replay there is no help needed as Aurora has YET to act

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
12 days ago

Thank you for putting a human face on this issue. This is the only way we can expect a compassionate response to the problem. And a camping ban is not that.

People don’t “see” the homeless or the panhandlers, because it makes them feel guilty. To ignore them and to make homelessness a political issue guarantee that we will never reach a solution.

But as the haters say, “SOMEONE needs to do SOMETHING.” Like move them into someone-else’s neighborhood. Whatever.

Jennifer Roberts
Jennifer Roberts
11 days ago

There was a really good NPR article (I know, don’t throw things at me) that talked about the hotel program in Washington DC during COVID. It was really successful in keeping people off the street long enough to qualify for help for their own apartment and get stabilized. I think this would be an excellent use of ARPA funds from the Affordable Housing Taskforce, or from the ARP Working group at DOLA.