Braving the streets

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Feb 112008
 
Authors: Tim Maddocks

*Second in a three-part series on the homeless in Northern Colorado.

A homeless man sits at a table at Catholic Charities Northern, a Fort Collins shelter, waiting for free lunch to be served.

He’s munching on orange peanut butter sandwich crackers. With each bite, the crackers crumble off his wild, unkempt beard and onto the table, where he takes the crumbs, nervously gathers them into a pile and rearranges them. Then, he wrecks the pile, only to rebuild it.

Emotionless, he looks at the floor and mutters under his breath intently, in a sort of public speaking cadence that only makes sense to him.

“That’s the problem with America,” he says. “All that land they took from the government … considering the taxes. There’s something called a tax return — means something opposite of what it sounds. You never get back what they take out.

“The thing about the middle class …” he goes on, paying no attention to a reporter taking notes.

When asked his name, he looks up, pulls off his blue cotton beanie, releasing his wild brown hair, and proudly proclaims, “James,” still holding the beanie high above his head.

James stops muttering.

He sleeps under the bridge by Wal-Mart, on Mulberry Street, that guides traffic over the Cache La Poudre River — a step up from the streets of Denver, where he was recently hit on the head with a baseball bat.

“My head went to the side,” he says, tilting his head to the right to show where he’d been struck. “I didn’t even see who hit me. But I tried not to fall because I didn’t want to get hit again. I waited ’til I saw they were gone, then I let myself drop.”

There are different types of cold, James says, the worst being the “spiky cold.” The bridge helps with the cold sometimes.

His eyes twitch as he continues to talk in a voice too loud for the room.

“Since I’ve been homeless, I’ve been through hell,” he says. “If you want to write an article that will help people, you should talk about how hard it is to get identification. The reason I don’t have a job is because I don’t have an ID.”

Slipping into homelessness

James Schumacher was born on Oct. 10, 1980. But he has no proof of that.

“During my life, you wouldn’t believe the crap I’ve been through,” he said in December while surfing the Web at the Fort Collins Library, where he spends most days. “All the abuse I’ve been through, and am still going through, is why I’m homeless.”

James was born to a broken family living in a trailer park in Elkhart, Iowa, where he says his parents neglected him.

“From the time I was four years old, I was left alone all the time,” he said. “All I had was food and an Atari 2600.”

He describes his relationship with his family as “extremely mentally and verbally abusive.”

“I hate my family,” he said. “I don’t want to ever see them again.”

When he was 14, he moved into his grandparents’ house in Ankeny, Iowa, after his stepfather “threatened to kill (him).”

At 17, he dropped out of high school and started treatment for his new addiction to crystal meth.

“I haven’t touched meth since,” he said, almost defensively. “And I smoked pot once after that and hated it.”

He doesn’t drink.

After getting his grade equivalency diploma at 19, he worked at various package-handling jobs and spent his spare time learning basic computer programming skills /– a profession for which he aspires still.

James said he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 2003, but he’s adamant that he isn’t afflicted with the condition. He hasn’t found work since.

He moved out of his grandparents’ house for the first time on Feb. 5, 2006 — he remembers the date — and has been homeless since.

In April 2006, he headed for California to find programming work.

Armed with only a bag of clothes and a hunch, he hiked the couple miles from a Des Moines Salvation Army to a ramp off of Interstate 80, stuck his thumb out and hitched a ride.

He never made it to the Golden State.

A man in a blue minivan drove him 650 miles to the Perkins in downtown Fort Collins, gave him $20 and drove away.

Shortly after arriving in Fort Collins, he realized he left his ID in Des Moines.

Since then, James lives on the streets of the Front Range, going from Fort Collins to Cheyenne to Denver and back to Fort Collins, sticking close to I-25. Loveland is his resting place, for now.

On Friday, Dec. 7, it snowed hard and continued all weekend.

“I haven’t slept the last two nights because it’s been so cold,” James said at CSU’s Morgan Library, where he says he keeps his computer skills sharp. “I can stay warm under the blankets, but I can’t sleep.”

James was lucky enough to get into an emergency weather shelter the following Monday.

The ID Catch-22

In Fort Collins, Catholic Charities and Salvation Army are the only two agencies that help people acquire the sometimes hard-to-get documents to apply for government benefits, which require a state-issued ID and a birth certificate.

The services include food stamps, welfare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits.

But these Fort Collins agencies — knowing many, like James, are all but invisible — also help homeless people acquire IDs.

Bruce Hall, a CSU social work professor, said many people lose their ID because of the nature of their environment. Many are alcoholics or mentally ill, and IDs get lost or stolen.

“We can sit on our wallet all day,” Hall said. “But (some homeless), they’re not oriented in space and time. You’re lucky if you can keep your pants on, let alone keep an ID.”

And when an ID is lost, it’s not a simple process to get another one.

“You need an ID to get an ID,” said Helen Somersall, regional director of Catholic Charities. “It’s become real punitive.”

Kate Walker, director of Catholic Charities emergency assistance program, has helped the needy acquire IDs and birth certificates for the last three years.

In November, one client had 13 pieces of documentation, including a Native American tribal ID, she said, and he still couldn’t get identification.

Colorado Citizens ID Collaboration Project in Denver helps people get documentation for public benefits, and sometimes helps the homeless acquire birth certificates or IDs.

“It’s a big problem,” said Liz Miller, a specialist with the Colorado ID Project. “It’s a complicated process because (the states) try to make sure people are who they say they are.”

Since February the Colorado ID Project, a grant-funded program, helped 931 people get the required documentation for either IDs or birth certificates.

In the last six months, Catholic Charities has helped 51 people acquire birth certificates.

And it’s harder in some places than others to get a birth certificate.

“In Colorado it’s not too hard, but other states can be difficult,” Walker said,

Getting James’ ID

For the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles to issue a state ID, a photo ID is required. Documentation like passports, school IDs, expired state IDs and military IDs work.

James only had a birth certificate when he got to Fort Collins.

But the DMV in Denver gives out exception processing forms for people without proper documentation, and the form only requires applicants to have a birth certificate and Social Security card to get a state ID.

The Collegian used a recent tuberculosis test to prove James’ existence, wrote the $15 check and ordered his Social Security card in early December.

For the man without an identity and his heart set on Silicon Valley, things were beginning to look up.

Running from the demo-nazis

Following James in his quest for identification, his extreme paranoia became increasingly evident.

“I hate you demo-nazis,” he wrote in reference to what he believes is an entity comprised of his family and the government, which conspires to control him.

James keeps a blog, documenting his life and telling his story. To the rest of the world, it’s the only real proof of his existence.

“Everything people put me through, this country. It’s on a comparison with a terrible heinous act, except in some ways it’s worse,” he wrote in one submission. “The fact that this country put me through all it has since I was four years old, and against my will, and for the majority of my life I had no clue as to what was going on .”

James admits he endured two stints in a Broadlawns Medical Center, an Iowa psychiatric hospital, and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. But he says he doesn’t have schizophrenia and refuses to take medication.

Schizophrenia is defined as displaying a variety of psychotic symptoms over a period of six-months. Symptoms include: Distorted perceptions of reality, hallucinations, delusions, disordered thinking, and lack of emotional expression, to name a few.

Dominic Brewer, a CSU psychology professor said in his 11 years at CSU, he has treated five student-patients with schizophrenia.

James exhibits all the telltale symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, Brewer said.

“For a paranoid schizophrenic, their sense of reality is real,” Brewer said. “To tell them they’re not delusional or hearing voices, they think you must be crazy, because they are hearing voices. You can’t argue with them and tell them otherwise. It’s a very sad disease.”

Brewer said that while there is no known cure, medication can quell the symptoms. However, paranoid schizophrenics are the hardest type to medicate because they generally don’t want to take medicine.

Brewer said without medication and a strong support system — medical professionals, family or friends — it’s virtually impossible to control symptoms of schizophrenia.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, 16 percent of homeless people in the U.S. have severe mental disorders.

But Brewer said that number is likely higher because many choose not to access public health systems.

Getting an ID ‘ain’t easy’

The Collegian received James’ Social Security card Jan. 5, a huge step toward attaining an ID.

But the process would take a huge step back when James lost his birth certificate. It was square one all over again.

“Somebody stole it,” he said at the Denver Public Library, where he had temporarily relocated. “Or I might have lost it.”

Hitching a ride back the same day, James made it back to Loveland, where he now had to work on getting a new copy of his birth certificate.

The next day, the Collegian printed out an application for an Iowa birth certificate and had James complete the form.

But the application needed to be notarized, which requires a state ID; banks couldn’t notarize the document.

James needed a picture ID to get a picture ID — seemingly, a Catch-22 that would forever keep him from escaping life on the streets.

But a brief criminal history — a misdemeanor assault case that was later dismissed //– could be the key to acquiring James’ identity.

His record could be used to identify him, a clerk with the Iowa Department of Health said. And the birth certificate could be mailed to James, and only to James.

But he doesn’t have an address, hasn’t had an address, and won’t have an address any time soon.

The document could be mailed to the shelter he was staying at, but Loveland’s shelter is opened on a day-to-day basis, and it doesn’t have a mailbox.

So the Collegian arranged to have it sent to a shelter in Fort Collins and ordered James’ criminal record.

But the Iowa Department of Health said the document had to be sent to a place where James is currently residing.

“This isn’t going to work,” the clerk said about a week later. “You can’t do it. Stop trying . you have to be affiliated with something to help him. There has to be a cover letter with his request. Tell him to go to Social Services.”

When the Collegian inquired further, asking to speak with a supervisor, the call was terminated.

James’ application is now being processed by a local social services agency, an agency that has cover letters.

The Collegian heard from James Monday, from a phone in Cheyenne, Wyo., where he is staying at a shelter and looking for under-the-table work. If he gets an ID, he hopes to pursue his dream of becoming a computer technician.

Staff writer Tim Maddocks can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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