By Cecilia LaFrance
The noose encircled Bob Martin’s neck. All he had to do was kick out the chair under him in his garage on Valentine’s Day seven years ago. “I didn’t have the coping skills,” Bob says, for what he thought lay before him: his marriage terminating, the consequences of a drunk driving charge, and inevitable bankruptcy. “What actually came down the road was 10 to 20 times more difficult.” Bob says if he knew then the loneliness and difficulty of surviving without means, he may have done it. “I wish I was successful because I’ve gone through a lot of negative things after that.” Maybe it was divine intervention, he says, that he didn’t choose suicide. “I think I’m here for a reason.”
To talk with Bob, be the focus of his wide blue eyes, be the benefactor of the daily donations he hands out while providing laundry service at homelessness agencies throughout Denver, or to hear how much he enjoys his job, the despair of his previous years is hard to reconcile. A troubled childhood, dysfunctional family, an avoidable death of a fellow soldier, a failed marriage, health complications, a prison term, caretaking for a dying mother, and being homeless twice by the age of 60 resulted in a life of turmoil. Yet, Bob achieved stability by not giving up and through accepting the help of other people.
“I keep going, I don’t know, like a machine,” Bob says. Behind him, 6 washing machines and 6 dryers swirl and churn in the Bayaud Enterprises Laundry Truck. Dissolving detergent masks the smells of garbage dumpsters in the alley behind a day shelter for women and transgender females a block north of East Colfax Avenue. Bags of freshly washed clothes and linens wait on a platform to be retrieved, their owner’s name printed in marker on the outside. Bob drives the laundry truck part time for Bayaud in a cooperative work program with the City of Denver. His criminal record, former job termination, and poor credit rating—stains that taint applications for employment and housing—stay in the past.
Working for an agency that Bob calls “a blessing” full of “world-class people” gives him a rewarding outlet to give back to the community. “Then, my stuff kind of just melts away, ya know, that baggage.” He’s in a position to help out someone still without a home. Clean laundry equates to self esteem, he says, and may add success for someone in an interview. “At the very least it could make you feel human.” And he tries to accommodate as much as he can for visitors, making exceptions when possible to avoid delivering another “no” to people who hear denial too often. “That’s the big picture, is being helpful, not just doing laundry.”
Bob’s appreciation for assistance mirrors his gratitude for being a recipient. Without pause, Bob ranks Gene Garcia, a program coordinator at Denver’s Department of Human Services, as a critical person in getting him off the streets. “He helped me at my lowest point,” Bob says. Garcia let him store important belongings in a safe spot and lined him up with work that qualified him for benefits and led to a position at Bayaud. “He saw potential in me.” Bob had been evicted from his apartment in the dead of winter after a series of hardships. He hadn’t fully rebuilt his life after losing his house years earlier. Once again, Bob wanted to die and thought he might in the cold winter nights on the streets. He especially remembers the freeze of Christmas 2017 when he was taken to Denver Health and released with a diagnosis of “situational stress.” “It was a pretty hopeless situation,” Bob’s face sags with the weight of the memory, then his brows release as he comes back to present. “But, I’m more stable now.”
Bob is learning to cope. With help from The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless Stout Street Clinic, Bob says he has a treatment plan for his Hepatitis C, an illness that formerly challenged his ability to work well. And, working with a therapist at the clinic, he “dissects” uncomfortable incidents from the past and moves on. “Unfortunately, I have a dogged determination. I needed help and I got it. On my own I would have given up.”
Bob recognizes troubling incidents from the past as red flags of destructive behavior. His jail time resulted from unchecked frustration and setting what he thought was his boss’ car on fire. He took risky positions at jobs so his chances of gaining freedom in death were higher. His drunk driving charge tied to using booze to mask pain. “I don’t think there are any solutions in a bottle,” he says now. Instead, Bob reduces stress by managing time better and embracing simple things. For his job, he continues training so he can grow and be more effective with those he meets. The future is hard to see, he says. “I have trouble making goals, but I’m going to work on it.” Bob also admits he’s hardened his heart, which he hopes to work on, too.
Stability doesn’t translate to feeling secure. “I never get too comfortable because I know it can go away so fast.” Through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program, Bob lives in a one-bedroom apartment in East Denver. “It’s a big change when you’re out in the elements and vulnerable. They put a key in your hand and it’s ‘Wow.’” His savings account has a balance, he’s paid off his car and resumed auto insurance. Moving up at work is an option. Although housed for nearly a year in walls yet to host a single decoration, one memento sticks with tape to his refrigerator. The receipt stands for a day of gratitude in July when he had the money after work, had the car to drive to the grocery, had the freezer to store his purchase, and ate an orange cream popsicle at his home. “Sometimes a simple thing is important to a person.”
“I think God protects me,” Bob says. Not tied to organized religion, Bob defines his own faith. “I recognize that there’s a higher power. A lot of times, I rely on it, and I pray.”
Homelessness & Suicide
10 times higher = Suicide rates for people experiencing homelessness over general population
50% = number of people experiencing homelessness with thoughts of suicide or prior attempts.
Source: National Health Care for the Homeless Council. “Fact Sheet: Suicide and Homelessness.” May 2018. http://www.nhchc.org.
Bayaud Laundry Trucks
- Two trucks make 30 stops per month
- Propane-powered dryers
- 200 degree heat kills bedbugs
- 30 load capacity per truck each trip
- 1 gallon of detergent per day
- Water hookup at site
- 300-gallon on-board waste water tank