by Cecilia LaFrance
Parked in an empty section of a lot outside University of Colorado Hospitals in Aurora, Lee Lee and Michael pass time on a seasonably warm Sunday afternoon. Besides the open back passenger door where Michael takes in fresh air from the cluttered folded down cargo area of the Infinity SUV, a plastic gas can tied to the roof and a dog testing the limits of a makeshift leash off the rear of the car give hints to life beyond their visit to the medical campus. Homeless, they have no other place to be other than back at the hospital tomorrow to change Lee Lee’s blood bag, a treatment option in lieu of gallbladder surgery.
“Today I feel okay, but I know I’m going to have to have surgery,” says Lee Lee, a nickname and an alternative to giving her real name, which she worries will draw negative attention from her family. “We have this car. It could be worse.”
Lee Lee and Michael are two of the over 5,000 people experiencing homelessness in the Denver metro area. Panhandlers and downtrodden bodies carrying rucksacks and sleeping bags are a common sight in Denver, but more associated with intersections and off ramps, littered streets leading to shelters downtown, or discreet locations of trail systems or parks yet to be policed. The respite in the hospital parking lot is temporary for Lee Lee and Michael. Later, they’ll drive to another area in Aurora to sleep in their car. But, for the past three weeks, and potentially the next three, the hospital is a daily destination. They take turns interjecting in each other’s explanation of Lee Lee’s low platelet count and their hardships.
Lee Lee and Michael’s story trails from a childhood in Utah. Lee Lee was best friends with Michael’s sister. “We went on with our lives in different ways, but we got back together.” For Lee Lee, motherhood started on her 18th birthday when she gave birth to the first of five children. For Michael, he eventually moved to Colorado and married. During a separation from his wife, he and Lee Lee reconnected. “I moved here to be with my dude,” Lee Lee calls from the driver’s seat.
The four years since they reunited have been a bout of illness, death, and loss. Michael’s wife died unexpectedly; Michael suffered massive injury and endured a lengthy hospital stay; Lee Lee had her documents stolen in a move; both struggle with mental illness; and eviction from a rental property resulted when roommates didn’t pay their part of the rent.
“I didn’t know I’d get in this position.” Lee Lee’s head shakes slowly. “A lot of people are like this (homeless).” The car, Michael’s former wife’s vehicle, is a blessing. “This is what’s been keeping us.” The police, Michael says, know their car and leave them alone.
They avoid the crowded and noisy shelters, which tend to trigger Michael’s PTSD. The lack of permanent address and moving around interferes with their treatments, he says, losing medications or not getting important status communications from Medicaid.
“I’m not going to lie. I’m not perfect. I took up drinking too much and that didn’t help me.” Lee Lee’s eyes don’t stray during the confession. Both of them have liver problems, Michael says. Lee Lee’s trying to stop drinking. “I’m trying to slim off it. I’m trying to get better.”
Neither want to leave Denver. Michael receives social security from his former wife’s contributions. Lee Lee gets money where she can. “Sometimes I panhandle or take jobs under the table, not prostitution or nothing.” She wants to get back to visit her kids in Utah, who she stays in contact with. But, turning to family for help is off the table.
“They ain’t got nothing to do but run their mouth about us,” Michael’s voice holds the first tinge of impatience in an otherwise open disclosure about their situation. “We get no help from them. We get more help from others,” he scoffs.
Getting Lee Lee better is the immediate goal. “I ain’t ready to quit. I ain’t ready to die,” she says. Their faith keeps them going while they don’t have the security to look much beyond the next day.
Losing a lifetime’s worth of possessions, Michael offers a mantra for letting go. “It took me 63 years to become homeless. Easy come; easy go.”