by Cecilia LaFrance
Leona Marie Lucero, age 62, can’t say how long she’s been homeless. “Off and on I stayed with my mom, or in a shelter, or with men friends.” Her parched voice delivers details slowly, like someone extremely deprived of sleep. Lucero moves at a disabled pace past the front doors of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on Colfax Avenue on an August Tuesday morning asking pedestrians for change so she can get a bite of breakfast. She’s been up all night, moving around the Capital Hill area, her strategy for keeping safe on the streets. Lucero says she sleeps during the day somewhere in the grass around the historic cathedral. Lucero’s driving hope is that she’ll have a place of her own before the cold of winter. “I would never lose it. I can tell you that.” Regret drips in tears down her weathered face at all she has already lost.
Lucero’s memories step on landmines of trauma. When Lucero was two years old, her father went to prison; crime, however, stayed close to home. Her mother’s new husband sexually abused Lucero throughout her adolescence, sometimes with her alcoholic mother passed out nearby; after running away at the age of 15, Lucero became pregnant; her marriage failure coincided with losing custody of her first child; later, child welfare took three other children from her. “I didn’t have enough money to take care of them.” Lucero lists the ages of those children at separation: 4, 3, and 8 months. “I tried.” She wipes a transparent tear from her cheek with a crumpled tissue.
Other than a short employment with a fast food restaurant, Lucero never worked. “I’m slow, not fast enough,” she says. Asthma, emphysema, and bad legs kept her down. She lived off welfare as a single mom, and now receives less than $800 per month from SSI. “I can’t afford rent for myself.” Staying for a week or two with her mother, who resided in a senior apartment complex, was a backup option until her mother passed away a couple years ago. “My heart was broken when they took my kids and then it got worse.” Lucero says she still cries for her mom, misses her, even the bickering between them.
Lucero’s family estrangement echoes those of many others of people experiencing homelessness. “My kids don’t care about me.” She tells of her sons, one who once kicked her out during a blizzard and another serving 40 years in prison. Her relationship with her daughter, who was told her mother was dead, never healed. And, her youngest son, who was adopted, remains unknown to her. “I pray to the Lord he’ll come someday and reach me.” Lucero doubts her sisters would help her; so, she’s not asking.
“It’s an ugly life,” Lucero says of her situation. Behind her, a tourist stops to take a picture of the Cathedral’s towering spires. Four members of the Denver Police bike patrol ride past on the sidewalk. Street life is depressing and lonely, she says. Day-to-day, the burden of where she’s going to go weighs her down. “There ain’t nothing nice.”
“There ain’t nothing nice.”
Barely standing over 5 feet, wearing layers and carrying a grocery sack’s worth of extra clothes and a handbag, Lucero’s been targeted, beat up, and raped. She shows a scabbing scar on the spine of her lower back from a recent attack. “I’ve had my majority of being abused.” Her eyes break contact as she shares a mistake of accepting a man’s offer to warm up in his car on a cold night. “Never again.” Another instance of abuse put her in the hospital with a cracked pelvis. “I stay up all night because I don’t trust people.”
Losing her kids and her mom contributed the most to why she became homeless, Lucero says. She doesn’t drink or do drugs, she says. “I smoke a lot of cigarettes. That’s a bad habit, too.” Lucero believes she’s on a waiting list for housing with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “It takes a long time to get a place.” She’s found one organization that will pay a down payment on a rental if she locates a place within her budget. “But where can you find that?” Staying at a motel for $65 per night or paying people she knows up to $30 a night during the cold spells eats up her monthly paycheck. In her wallet, Lucero carries IDs to local missions and services nestled next to a prayer card. She visits church meals sometimes, but is currently on a year-long ban from Senior Support Services, a Denver day shelter for those age 55 or older who are hungry or homeless. “I did something really bad,” she says. The center staff confirms Lucero’s ban for stealing a month bus pass. “It didn’t belong to me,” Lucero admits.
“Life goes on,” Lucero says when asked how she copes. She prays sometimes and believes God will help her. “I got to help myself, too,” Lucero says, which to her means staying strong and waiting. “I hope someday they call my name.”