Fort Collins is the best city in the country to live in, according to Money magazine. But what if you don’t have any money?
Aron sits on a picnic table in Library Park in Old Town, head down on his ragged
flannel shirt. His eyes are bloodshot and faded as he strokes his dirty, gray beard. Pulling off his crusty old cap, he runs a grimy hand through his long greasy hair. A stray piece of tobacco hangs from his cracked, dry lips.
He asks to be referred to only as Aron; he prefers anonymity because, he says, “someone is always pounding on my face.”
Aron looks tired, beaten down.
“I’m not a thief,” he says, ” and I’m not a liar, but I can’t seem to do anything right in this town.”
Aron is one of an estimated 2,600 homeless in Larimer County in a given year, according to a study done by Compass of Larimer County. The exact numbers aren’t concrete due to the migratory nature of transients.
“Some distrust ‘the system’ and avoid areas where people congregate, which make them difficult to count,” according to the group. Others are homeless for a while, become self-reliant or temporarily live with friends, family or in places not suited for human habitation, such as cars.
The latter is how Aron found himself in Fort Collins in the first place.
“I was up at Red Feather fishing and my car burned down. I mean it literally went up in flames. The state patrol took me to the mission and I’ve been stuck here ever since.”
The “mission” is The Open Door Mission on the corner of Linden and Jefferson streets, run by the Rev. Richard Thebo.
Thebo is a short man with piercing blue eyes, a shock of white hair on his head, and a well-trimmed beard. He wore all black and looked as if he had just stepped off the pulpit.
“The Rev,” as he is called by those at the shelter, founded the Open Door Mission in 1987, offering 12-step programs, group and private counseling and three meals a day for “anybody who walks through the door.”
The sign out front says, “Helping others to help themselves.”
About a dozen people on a recent afternoon sat in the mission – including an infant and a small boy. Some chatted in groups. Others read books or stared into space.
These are Fort Collins’ homeless. They can be seen throughout the city, including at CSU. In the winter months, they seek warmth and shelter nestled in the couches of Morgan Library and the Lory Student Center.
“We do what we can to help people get a fresh start in life,” Thebo said. “Sometimes it takes helping them with their identification, sometimes with personal tragedies or emotional upsets.”
The Open Door Mission is a non-profit organization that relies heavily on the community organizations and churches to keep the doors open.
“We don’t have any money from the city, we totally depend on the community,” Thebo said. “The holidays boost us up like crazy.We actually lose about $4,000 a month during the rest of the year.”
As much as he loves Fort Collins, Thebo sees room for progress.
“I think a great deal of miscommunication, misunderstanding is there on both sides and part of it has to do with the homeless feeling like they aren’t good enough, like they don’t belong,” he said.
“They feel like they stick out like a sore thumb. You go around wearing a coat in July with a backpack strapped to your back and a bedroll on it, of course you stick out. On the same token, that doesn’t make you a bad person, and I really believe that one of the main jobs of The Open Door Mission is to break down that barrier.”
So how did Thebo feel when he read the recent “Money” magazine article listing Fort Collins as the best city in the country to live in?
“I couldn’t agree with the article more, but I hated to see it,” he said. “The bad part is that now people come expecting that just because we’re the No. 1 city, we’re the No. 1 opportunity for jobs.”
So homeless could flock to the city, hoping to find a job that probably won’t be available, Thebo said.
Barry Smith, too, didn’t disagree with the “Money” magazine ranking. Smith, a friendly man in his mid-forties, smoked a cigarette on a picnic table outside the Open Door Mission. He wore a button-up, white shirt, dirty khaki shorts and a white cap from out of which long, blond hair curled.
Smith came to Fort Collins in 2000 from Aurora. He prefers it here.
“It’s quieter here,” he said. “Don’t have sirens wailing all the time, less people, less traffic.”
Staff writer Kevin Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.
Counting the homeless
On Monday, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless will be conducting a statewide homeless count.
Teams of volunteers will survey homeless persons on the streets and in emergency shelters.
Volunteers for Larimer County must attend a two-hour training session, held 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 23, in the Natural Resources Building, room 113.
For more information on how to volunteer, contact Heather Meyer, the Larimer County Coordinator for the count, at (970) 962-2705 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.