by Cecilia LaFrance
Arnie Carter was locking his bike outside his downtown work headquarters, a humanitarian nonprofit organization bridging employment gaps for those in a volatile state of transition, when he noticed a man nearby staring at him.
“You don’t remember me,” the homeless man said, but soon Carter’s brain fired across the 20-plus-years’ absence to recognize his old school buddy, TJ.
“We went to school together, had lived in the same neighborhood. He worked hard in school, played three instruments,” Carter recalls the contrast in similarities and calls out the differences. “He graduated.” Carter’s head shakes slightly as he admits he didn’t put any effort at studies and still earned the same grades as TJ and eventually dropped out.
The encounter with his old friend a few years ago needles at him. “Here I am living a comfortable life.” TJ, he reports, who had just gotten out of prison at the time, remains at one of Denver’s homeless shelters, places Carter has worked with for over 20 years to tackle Denver’s ongoing social issue. “The only difference between me and TJ is the color of his skin.”
But, Carter doesn’t stand for any division. “My belief is that we’re one being. There’s no separation between me and you.” Carter perspective made him the unique fit for an outreach program Denver Health launched 20 years ago to place a liaison in the streets and make relationships, the foundation of bringing someone out of homelessness. “My goal would be to be with them.” Listening. Rarely giving advice. Reaffirming strengths. “I’d help them find doctors and make them believe they deserve it (health care).” The small gestures others may take for granted help people facing homelessness stay out of the ER by getting help before reaching an urgent situation in their health.
“Lots of times, people have given up,” Carter grasps at a way to explain an understanding earned through years of contact with a subculture largely avoided by the mainstream. They’ve been lied to, cheated, or pushed in the wrong direction. “People walk by without looking at them.” The nonverbal message equates to not mattering.
Now, Carter works in a different capacity tackling the delicate stage of rebuilding an employment foundation. Four days a week, he picks up a crew of five workers at Civic Center Park, drives them to a City of Denver contracted work site, and digs and clears canals with them for the next six hours. “Working together, it’s healing. We do an incredible amount of work. When we get done and see it, ‘Wow, we did that.’” Carter’s eyes widen to mimic the reaction. “We can see people’s dignity rising.”
The work program offered by Bayaud Enterprises pays $75 a day, provides breakfast and lunch, and a bus pass. “Folks out of the workforce for awhile, un-hirable for many reasons, can get IDs, find employers, and have a piece of time to put on a resume.”
Carter agreed to an interview after work at a tea shop in the Colorado Mills Mall, 11 miles further west on Colfax Avenue from the where he recently dropped off his crew, Capitol Hill. “That’s the real Colfax to me,” he says, and the place he most associates as home. But, due to rising costs of living, he and his wife recently moved out of the heart of Denver to Lakewood.
Carter calmly accepts inquiries, his weathered blue eyes rarely breaking contact. His smiles never seem to fade before the next arises, especially when questioned about what it takes to do the work he does. “Maybe be crazy,” his laugh snuffles through his nose. “I’m a little broken myself, maybe that is a piece of it.” His hands gently cup his tea. “I think you really learn compassion when you yourself are hurting. You know what it is to hurt.”
“What else are you going to believe in? The connection between people, I mean, that’s life.”
The 9/11 terrorist attacks and resulting Iraq War especially wounded him. “Seeing other people hurt each other definitely hurts me a lot.” Bouts of depression afflicted his life, and Carter talks of a learning disorder that’s affected him since days as a student. Being an activist and putting himself to work in helping roles feeds hope. Carter wants a society where people see, love and care for each other. “What else are you going to believe in? The connection between people, I mean, that’s life.”