On the Creek Banks and in the Slag

I’m an outsider in the town I frequently report on, a transplant from what feels like the unreal world of the exploding Denver-Boulder corridor. When I lived there for many years, I only knew Pueblo as a pit stop off of I-25 on my way down to Santa Fe or Taos. But over five years later, this feels like the real world to me, living not on Denver’s South Pearl St. with it’s boutiques, sushi bars, and coffee shops, but in a mashup of working-class and urban pioneer that’s my neighborhood behind Pueblo’s main library and down the street from its low-income high-rise for seniors.

In those five years, one of the stories that I’ve written about is the response of the city and the non-profits to the problem of homelessness, which is of course not unique to Pueblo. Nor is the entrenched poverty here, what sociologists and policymakers call generational poverty, which was here long before out of staters arrived in droves across the state, in part for Medicaid expansion and for the legalization of pot.

I don’t doubt that non-Puebloans came here for new opportunities or searching for a better life, as the local weekly has said, but as rents and home prices here haven’t had anywhere near the explosive growth that anywhere from Colorado Springs north to practically the Wyoming border, and out west to Grand Junction has, I wonder where all of these seekers are. The answer is that many of them are homeless or are working poor, and need services from non-profits like Posada, whose mission when it started many years ago was to “bring Pueblo home,” to provide both emergency and stable housing for Pueblo families, who were in need long before newcomers arrived.

With limited government funding and donations, Posada and its small staff—-paid and volunteer—along with other nonprofits whose budgets were already stretched by a historically poor city, were responsible for finding shelter for anyone who needed it, with a focus on those with children. So if you came to Pueblo with your two children with hopes of working to cultivate cannabis or work as a budtender to support your family, the jobs weren’t unlimited, and they weren’t high-paying. If you happened to find housing but couldn’t afford to keep paying rent or to afford utilities, you came to Posada. The wait for government-subsidized housing is a year or more, but maybe you get a motel room for a while or a bus ticket for your family to return home, where you might have had a Section 8 voucher.

Or maybe you live on the banks of Fountain Creek or in a busted-open tree trunk in the slag dumped by the CF&I. It’s summer and nearly one hundred degrees, but you don’t have the money for a motel or rent. You like “the freedom from not being bothered,” as one group of people living in the slag told me two summers in a row as case workers from Posada and the VA, a former Vietnam medic who tended to wounds and ailments of the group, and a former Iraq army captain delivered water and told the group as he did weekly, that food and help were available.

Not everyone who comes to Pueblo lives in slag or on the banks of Fountain Creek among human feces. But some do. Pueblo is not the only city in the state or the country where the homeless and needy appear out of nowhere in the grocery store parking lot as you get in your car at night, begging for money. Many suffer in our country, and nonprofits, especially in towns with so few resources, can’t help everyone, especially if their mission is to help the people who were in that town first. It should be on the shoulders of new industries whose billboards promise that their product—pot—will take away your aches and pains, make you forget about life for a while, whose ads with twenty percent off coupons support the local weekly and even seem to determine the paper’s editorial policy, who should be pitching in to address the collective pain of a city in need.

Non-profits like Posada certainly are not working for fame or fortune, or it goes without saying, profit.

Doing the Work Behind the Headlines in the Least Likely Place

I report from flyover country, meaning that when you fly from New York to LA or pretty much anywhere from the East Coast to points beyond where I am in Colorado, you'll be thousands of miles above me and the small town and rural counties around me on the ground.

If you land in Denver, or even a couple hours south in Colorado Springs, you'd never know that there was a part of the state that so unlike the rest that it could be its own swath of land with a name like Left Behind, or Struggling to Make Ends Meet, or no way rents here are a third of what they are in Denver. That crime is the highest in the state and unemployment too, despite the boom and the thousands still streaming into Denver, Boulder, and Foco--what we call Ft. Collins, now. 

When I lived in Boulder back when, no one called South Boulder Sobo. Or when I lived in the Highlands, LoHi.

Here in Pueblo it's just South Pueblo, North Pueblo, the East Side, Bessemer, Beaujohn Hill, Goat Hill, Pueblo West. There's no pretension here. Many people are just trying to survive. There's a homeless man sleeping facedown in the park as I write this. There's another who sleeps between the car wash bays and some trees. Nurses and social workers go out weekly with water, food, and services. Many of the homeless are veterans or mentally ill, or both. Some have been released from the State Hospital, a large employer here, and have nowhere to go.

On the other side of Abriendo Avenue, which I imagine once was a beautiful, well-maintained, boulevard, with a strip of trees in the middle, are much larger and well-kept homes than on my side, which is part urban pioneer, but mostly working-class folks. It reminds me of living "below the 580" in Oakland because it's all that I could afford on my publishing salary. Now that area has a Whole Foods and is quadrupled rent.

That's all to say that I found myself here in Pueblo as a non-native, as the interloper I feel at times, but still called to do the work of telling stories--of letting those voices tell their stories in their own words--stories of drug addiction, of the health crisis of obesity and the blue disability placards that almost every car I see has, of how legal marijuana has supposedly had a good impact, and of the Pueblo Mall, which is where the community gathers on weekends, along with Wal Mart. It's also where I've interviewed and gotten to know some of the most hardworking, inspiring, and truly amazing people I've ever met, trying to help those in need, to make the community better.

So think of us down here sometime when you're about one hundred miles north. It's cool to have a cocktail at Lola, ice cream at the Little Man, pick up something you need at IKEA. We'll be down here on the Riverwalk, or at Wal Mart, or maybe even Red Lobster. This is the real world for so many people, and I'm fortunate to be down here, a part of it.