“Every time I come out here, I get sicker.”

by Cecilia LaFrance

8.21.2019

“I planned on having something warm. Fate just took me in a different direction,” Steven Packer, age 56, says of a rocky life that’s left him and his wife, Cheryl, age 51, without a home. The Packers panhandle outside an Aurora McDonald’s most days from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. “People think it’s easy. It isn’t,” Steven says. “You have to swallow your pride,” Cheryl says, in order to stand on a corner and ask for money.

Steven and Cheryl Packer need $70. Once they raise the cost of their hotel fee, they’ll quit panhandling for the day. If they don’t start by 5:45 a.m., someone else may get their regular spot at a stoplight median outside a busy McDonald’s on east Colfax Avenue. By 8 a.m., only five out of more than a hundred drivers donated a total of $7.00, which stays stored in a used Pringles can next to Steven’s wheelchair and oxygen tank. The remaining commuters keep tinted windows rolled up or avoid eye contact while they wait for their green light.

“They try stay away from us as much as possible,” Steven says, as if he and his wife have a disease or will steal from them. Steven doesn’t blame them. Some panhandlers and addicts bang on car windows and some profess to be homeless, like TV news investigations report, but use money for drugs or car payments.

“Don’t judge us because of what others do,” Cheryl says. “There’s stigmatism out here if that you’re homeless, you’re a drug addict or criminal.”

“I understand. They don’t know me,” Steven says of why people don’t give. But, if they stopped, he’d tell them his story, show them the conditions of the Pacesetter Motel room 500 feet away, where the couple has housed for a year and a half. In the cramped quarters, dream catchers and plants domesticate the space; a makeshift kitchenette claims a corner; and a clunky oxygen concentrator stands against the wall so Steven can refill his tanks, which give him three hours worth of breathing support for his COPD.

Because he has to

“I do it because I have to,” Steven says of why he panhandles. “$771 a month in Social Security doesn’t cut it for anybody.” His fee at the Pacesetter takes $350 per week, a rate locked in at last year’s cost rather than the current $400 rate. Google reviews rarely rank the lodging above one star except for instances of sarcasm or generous praise for the manager, who has let the Packers accumulate over $1500 in back fees. In addition to lodging and food, Steven needs fresh bandages—not covered by Medicaid–to cover a hole in his foot, a complication of his uncontrolled type II diabetes. Then, there are other fees, like a fine for trespassing from last year at the Interstate 225 off ramp down the block, and the interest at the pawn shop, where Steven’s electric scooter, TV, and other belongings earned him a stay of eviction when he couldn’t raise enough charity on the corner. “We’re trying to keep our stuff and not start over for the umpteenth time,” he says.

Steven and Cheryl’s chronic homelessness trails throughout stays in Arizona and Florida, where both Steven and Cheryl couldn’t maintain employment. Health complications plagued Steven’s job attendance, and, subsequently, Cheryl ranked care-taking as higher in priority. “When I lost my job, I could only rely on my church so much,” Steven says of the support in Florida to fund their relocation to a mobile home in Aurora rather than returning to Arizona. Colorado was a deliberate choice. Panhandling is a crime in Tuscan, Steven says. After falling behind on rent, the Packers were evicted from the mobile home.

No plan

Now, the couple copes daily with their housing insecurity. “We don’t plan no more.” Cheryl shrugs. “Some days we make it. Some days we don’t.” Panhandling proceeds have funded them for more than five years. Cheryl’s been turned down for jobs, but faces the problem of leaving Steven without support if she gets one. Plus, there’s the lag time of the first paycheck, a risk to losing the shower and electric amenities of the hotel necessary for health. Steven says his doctor wants to put him in an assisted living facility, but his wife would be left to fend for herself.

A lot of shelters don’t accommodate Steven’s oxygen needs, he says, because of the fire risk, and the couple would be split in different locations, with fewer options for Cheryl as a female. In addition, shelters lack safety, Cheryl says, with instances of theft and rape. And, there’s a sexual expectation by men of homeless women, she says, that offends her. Once, while panhandling with Steven, Cheryl was offered $20 in exchange for sex, a favor, said the man, because she probably wasn’t getting any from her cripple.  “I’m not going to let someone disrespect me or my wife,” Steven says. “I can get out of this chair.”

Not without help

“We’re exhausted,” Steven says, of the housing assistance process. “We’ve been on the waiting list for three to four years.” On his phone, his email inbox holds a few unread notices from organizations. He dismisses them as essentially empty leads to apartments accepting vouchers that have their own waitlist along with a $40 or $50 nonrefundable application fee. Housing programs require them to have a job, Cheryl says, which is backwards because they need a home first. “This is our seventh time we started over,” Cheryl says, “and I’m tired.”

Steven doesn’t see a way out. “Not without help. I need help. I’m drowning. Every time I come out here, I get sicker.” In the reprieve of the cool morning’s clouds, Steven reserves his oxygen tank supply. The severe weather forecast calls for thunderstorms and flooding around noon, which will cut short his normal 3:00 p.m. departure.

Apologizing, Steven lights a cigarette. His lungs seize in cough immediately after his first drag. “I used to have bad habits worse than that,” Steven makes light of his nicotine addiction. He points to their hotel two buildings away. “Everything’s sold in that hotel,” he says and lists a menu including charge, spice, heroin, and black market marijuana. He cites depression and lack of hope as a reason he turned to crack in the past, but says he’s been clean for two years now.

Having a heart

A young man reaches out his window with a wrapped egg McMuffin, which Cheryl steps off the median to accept. Sometimes, charities or church groups come by. “They’re not offering what we need,” Cheryl says: bottles of water, socks, crack kits, needles, condoms. “I don’t do drugs.” Motel vouchers would really help, she says. “I want a place I can call my own.” Neither has family that can help; Steven’s remaining family is estranged, and Cheryl’s parents are deceased. Her two grown children already have enough burdens, she says.

Cheryl and Steven both see a familiar truck turn and head to McDonald’s. Daily, the driver gives her a thumbs down and occasionally tells her to get a job. “We ignore him,” she says. They don’t confront or talk to passing or waiting drivers, unless engaged in a conversation by their “regulars.” One regular, an older gentleman wearing a veteran emblem hat, extends a hand with two folded singles. “Jesus loves you,” he says.

“There’s some people out here who have a heart,” Steven says.

Steven Packer lost housing when falling behind in rent. He panhandles most days in Aurora, CO, near his hotel where he and his wife have lived for 18 months. (photo by Donna Baker)

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