by Cecilia LaFrance
The narrow parking lot of the small strip of storefronts acts as a staging area for people preparing to head home or onto their next task. A day laborer slouches against a temp office while waiting for his ride, a yellow hardhat by his side. A car barely brakes on its turn off Colfax to lurch into a spot in front of the liquor store, the kind where “Liquor” is the only name advertised on the exterior. In another idling car, a passenger texts from the front seat of a sedan while her mate runs in to recharge his Metro PCS phone plan. At the brief alley giving access to back service doors, Deserray Ruiz steadies herself against a commandeered shopping cart and sizes up a person walking by. “Got 50 cents I can have?”
Back on the Street
A Lakewood patrol car turns the corner, but continues in the direction of neighboring Walmart. Three more will cruise by within the hour, the area a congregation site for people experiencing homelessness. Deserray doesn’t pay the police more than a glance. She feels safe hanging out here, as she has for the past several days since her old man threw her out. “He doesn’t hit me or nothing,” unlike other men she’s partnered with, “but messes with me mentally.” Bitch, stupid, retarded are a few of his insults she repeats. “Then he threw me out. Now I’m back here on the street.”
Deserray uses the shopping cart like a walker, her small frame slightly crooked and stiff. In the carriage, a plastic bag protects her sleeping bag and blankets; because the zipper on the bag is broken, she uses the blankets to complete a full wrap to “cuddle up inside” and stay warm in the recent wet 40 to 50 degree nights. With dark clouds to the north, a spring squall may reach her before the night. She waits out the hours until she can get to a hiding place she’s found.
Surviving without a home is like a reoccurring cancer for Deserray. Coping instincts from previous bouts kick in. She sticks close to a busy location, the same area so friends that check up on her can find her. She has a warming oven hidden in the cover of bushes nearby. Night proves the scariest, because “guys might come beat me up.” Her voice trails off, leaving a pause for other potential violations. She stays away from loud people. “They always bring the cops.”
“It was bad,” Deserray says of her childhood home in east Denver, which she ran away from at the age of 16. “I had to. I got tired of listening to it, hearing it, watching him hit her.” She stands by her decision to leave her parents, each sentence of explanation holding a piece of pain. “It just hurt too much. I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t want my dad to do what he did to my mom.”
After running away, Deserray was sent to juvenile detention. Later, she ran again, this time to Arizona, and hooked up with a guy who “kept bringing home dope.” She tried it once, she says, earning full treatment for heroin overdose as a result. “Out there (Arizona), there’s a lot of drugs going on.” Deserray started carrying a knife.
“I’m not a violent person, but I’m going to stand my ground.” Doing so landed her in prison when she pulled her knife on a man she believed was going to attack her. “I didn’t have no witnesses or nothing. They believed him.” She served twelve years for assault with a deadly weapon, 52 months of which was “in the hole,” segregation from the other inmates.
“I’m tired of going to jail.” Deserray is currently on probation. She points out a woman on the corner, who currently holds a restraining order against Deserray resulting from an altercation three months ago. With a $5,000 bond she couldn’t pay, Deserray says the judge gave her on probation for 18 months. Keeping her eye on the corner, Deserray keeps the 100-foot required distance away. “I want nothing to do with her. Every time I see her I keep moving.”
On Her Own
Fighting the restraint of her own body, Deserray reaches down to the sidewalk to recover a discarded cigarette butt. She lights and draws the few remaining hits of nicotine before dropping it back to the ground. Her cat eyes scan the lot. Tear tattoos representing family she’s lost permanently mark her cheek. Her petite frame wears 54 years of troubled past.
Her father is dead. Her mother “won’t help me in no kind of way.” One brother is in jail, and another says he can’t help her out, his own situation limited. Her disability, she says, keeps her from work and providing for herself. “So, I’m on my own.”
Now, the only weapon Deserray carries is a lighter, she says. “It’s better for me not to carry anything.” Her plan until dark is to “find someone to cop a couple of cigarettes,” read a magazine she found, or draw. “I like to draw.”
“I’m doing okay.” Friends bring her food sometimes and check up on her. “I’ll see if I can find something, one of my friends to help me get something going. That’s the best I can do.”