squatting underground in Denver, CO FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Tue, 3 Feb 1998 04:17:12 -0800 (PST)

FWD   By Julia C. Martinez   Denver Post Staff Writer


Feb. 2 - Along an isolated stretch of the Platte River exists a side of
Denver's homeless community unknown to most people and undiscovered by the

It is a small population of men burrowed like moles in underground shelters.

A year after the city passed a law forbidding camping and loitering along
the banks of the Platte River and Cherry Creek, this neighborhood of
subterranean dwellers remains.

Some are former war veterans. Some have drinking or mental health problems.
All are society dropouts who want to be left alone, says Jess Gonzales, a
clinical case manager with the Mental Health Corporation of Denver who
advocates on their behalf.

By day, most of the men leave their dugouts to work day jobs and to forage
for food in area dumpsters.

On a recent morning, a man calling himself "Stumpy'' is still in his hole.
He peers out like a groundhog as uninvited visitors approach. At first he
is leery and reluctant to talk, but warms up slightly as Gonzales coaxes
him. He never emerges completely from the bunker.

Stumpy says he is 45 and a Vietnam veteran. He has lived in this bunker on
and off for about five years. He is "home'' on this day, he says, because
it's a bad day to get a job.

"Ain't nobody going to hire me on Friday,'' he says, a blue stocking hat
pulled down to his ears. He's wearing a black jacket with a torn left
sleeve. The edges of his fingernails are thick with dirt.

Stumpy says he is alone in the world except for a dog, which he claims is
inside the bunker. "I ain't got no father, no mother. Life is a hustle,''
he says.

He calls the bunker "my paradise, my two-tree hole,'' raising his eyes
toward the tops of the tall trees that hover overhead. Stumpy claims he has
mental problems but rejects efforts by Gonzales to get help. "I'll be
back,'' Gonzales tells him as he leaves.

A few yards from Stumpy's place are several similar underground dwellings,
nearly impossible to detect.

One bunker is covered with wood and a piece of shredded carpet. A chimney
pokes out of the ground near the entrance. No one is home, but the pipes of
the makeshift stove still are warm. Nearby is a half-eaten chicken leg.
Inside the 6-foot by 8-foot bunker is a tidy bed, a pair of shoes neatly
lined up and a cardboard box of supplies, a newsletter and other reading

These are the invisible homeless not yet affected by last year's ordinance
and subsequent sweep of the Cherry Creek and Platte River trails, Gonzales
said. The law left homeless squatters subject to fines or jail.

The ordinance was prompted by complaints from bicyclists, runners and other
trail users that the homeless were creating garbage, cluttering the path
with their makeshift dwellings and loitering, some intoxicated.

Now, many homeless swept from the creek and riverbanks last year are
creeping back.

They are not the panhandlers who sit on street corners or the young
transients who flit in and out of city shelters. They are the 550 or so
veteran street people, who Gonzales and other homeless advocates say have
been driven underground, in a figurative sense, by the law, and now live a
semi-clandestine existence like the homeless moles.

Many are war veterans, including a new crop of Persian Gulf vets, who
camouflage their dwellings or sleeping trenches so well, Gonzales says "you
can walk right past and not see them.''

Most of these homeless have returned to the river at night, arriving after
dark and leaving before daybreak, said Jim Emig, clinical coordinator at
the Colorado Coalition for the homeless. They no longer set up the
conspicuous dwellings that got many homeless booted off the riverbanks in
the first place.

"What they've turned into are transients,'' said Emig. "They pack stuff on
their back and bed down on the Platte. They get up early and disappear,
leaving little or no trace that they were there.''

What worries homeless advocates is that the law has driven this element of
Denver's homeless into hiding, making them more difficult to serve.

"The law moved homelessness from a visible status to an invisible status,''

Gonzales. The numbers along the Platte are nearly the same as before the
sweep, he said. "They just changed their tactics.''

It's well after dark on one weekday night when the shadowy figures of two
men make their way off Speer Boulevard and Market Street in lower Downtown
Denver and onto the bicycle trail along Cherry Creek. They head north, one
man carrying a bundle under his left arm, the other wearing a pack slung
over his shoulder.

They wind their way along the trail until they reach their destination
under a bridge hidden from the street. Not far from where they have
stopped, the outline of other figures becomes apparent. By sunrise the next
morning, all have vanished.

Gonzales says as many as 15 people bed down on that spot most nights.

"They wait 'til it's dark and the cops are gone and they roll out their
bedrolls,'' Gonzales said. By day, they scatter like cockroaches, many to
day labor jobs, others to less visible locations or soup and shower lines.
After dark, they sneak back.

As long as they remain hidden, Gonzales says, they won't get caught. "As
long as they're not in the open, the cops won't get out of their cars or
off their motorcycles to look for them,'' he said.

Police Capt. Gerry Whitman said his District 6 officers, who patrol from
Speer Boulevard to 38th Avenue, make regular daily sweeps of the Platte
searching out homeless people. He said they have not noticed a lot of
homeless coming back. "In my district, it's not a problem,'' Whitman said.

The dispersal of the homeless has left them prey to robbers, gangs of
teenagers and others who beat them up or steal what little money they have,
Gonzales says.

"Along the river there was safety in numbers,'' said Gonzales. "Now they're

At a city council committee meeting last month, Emig and other advocates
for the homeless explained this latest phenomenon to city officials, who
say they want the homeless served. "Now that they're decentralized, that's
harder than before,'' Emig said. To continue monitoring these homeless, he
said, advocates will need more resources.

It's a cold sunny afternoon as Hubert Charles Stokes perches on a green
bench along the Cherry Creek bicycle trail. He wears a black cap turned
backwards over shoulder-length brown hair. A long beard covers his face.

"I get peace of mind coming down here,'' Stokes said, gazing across the
gentlyrippling water. "There's nothing moving except the ducks, the rats
and the geese.''

A native of Texas, Stokes says he came to Denver in the late 1980s. He said
he staked out the bench when it was first put there a few years ago. By
day, the police don't bother him as long as he doesn't sleep, he said. At
night, he doesn't bring out his blanket until well past dark. And he sleeps
with one ear to the ground listening for motorcycle patrols.

On Jan. 12 Stokes said he celebrated his 50th birthday doing what he does
most days: dumpster digging, can hunting and sitting on a green bench near
Cherry Creek. That night, he said, he got a good night's sleep on his bench.


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