Peaks and valleys for formerly homeless Boulderite

Formerly homeless Boulder man recounts journey to and from the depths

Mike Homner lived in his car for five years.
Photo by Jefferson Dodge

Mike Homner was a successful businessman. Then a series of events thrust him into the world of being homeless. And he has scraped his way back. Almost.

Homner, on first appearance, seems like any other man. He is decently dressed, wears a brimmed hat, smiles easily. Homner, compared to other former homeless people, is lucky.

A native of New Jersey, where his family lived above his dad’s successful luncheonette, Homner moved to Virginia Beach with his family when he was 15. He finished high school, but never went to college, choosing instead to work at a snow ski shop, of all places in a beach town. But ski areas were as close as four hours away, and he stayed in that job for 10 years, working his way up to general manager of the shop.

Then, after meeting his future wife in the ski shop and getting married, Homner worked in the insurance business for 10 years. Their planned move to Utah, where he had secured some rentals in anticipation of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, got waylaid when his wife, a native of the Netherlands, had trouble getting the state to recognize her foreign licensure for physical therapy, so the two set their sights on Denver, where her license would be honored. Homner got a job in Colorado selling computer memory, and she joined him in 1999. They had two kids together.

“Then the train wreck began,” he recalls.

His father was diagnosed with leukemia and passed away a few days later.

His mother was diagnosed with breast, lung and brain cancer within six months of her husband’s death. Then his grandmother, on his mom’s side, was diagnosed with colon cancer.

Homner’s mother died six months after she was diagnosed, his grandmother a year after.

He and his wife regularly traveled to Europe to visit her family, but during this time of terminally ill relatives, he hung back and let his wife take the kids overseas. But the marriage was unraveling, and it was an ugly divorce, Homner says.

Homner’s son was 5, and his daughter was 3.

“My greatest job was being a father,” he says now.

Three close relatives passing away, on top of a hostile custody battle, was almost too much. On top of it all, Homner says, he took a job in the auto industry that required him to travel frequently, making it difficult to get back to Colorado for his allotted time with his children every other week, on Wednesday nights and weekends.

“I had ‘Frontier’ tattooed on my ass,” he jokes now.

Homner became too stressed, and the pressure of all the travel, on top of all that had happened to him, prompted him to take a different job, with Mercedes Benz in Littleton, in 2006. But it was too little, too late. He walked away from the working life in December 2007.

“Why? I don’t know. That was the start of the depression,” Homner says. “It was the build-up of all the things that had happened to me.”

Luckily, he still had a nest egg from his successful career. But it would not last long.

“Basically, what I did was slept in bed,” Homner says.

* * * *

He ran out of money and became homeless in 2008. He moved to Boulder, where he had some close friends who let him stay at their house for a while. When Homner moved out, they gave him a car. And even after he moved out, they let him shower and do laundry at their house.

“I wouldn’t be alive without them, let’s put it that way,” Homner says.

He acknowledges that he had it much easier than many homeless people. He could keep his belongings in his car. He was able to pay for car insurance and registration by charging fellow homeless people a couple of bucks for rides.

“I was a homeless taxi,” Homner recalls, adding that homeless people need rides to see their mental health practitioner or to pick up prescriptions, for instance — assuming they have the money for such things.

One summer during his nearly five years of being homeless, he camped outside of Nederland with a group, and he describes the difference between “recreational camping” and “survival camping.” The group would have to come into town and scrape together enough cash for water, food and ice — to preserve the food in a cooler.

“I would go weeks and weeks without a shower,” Homner says, adding that they would wipe themselves down as best they could, but “you were dirty.”

Then he describes the life of the average homeless person in Boulder.

Most homeless don’t have the luxury of having a car, he explains, and so if someone were camped in the foothills and had any hope of getting a shower at the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless between the designated hours of 6 and 8 a.m., they’d probably have to get up at 4 a.m. to make it into town.

“So it didn’t happen too often,” Homner says of his fellow homeless.

Only 11 people a day can shower at the Bridge House in Boulder.

“Showering is a job within itself,” he says. “People don’t get that.”

Bathrooms are another ordeal.

In downtown Boulder, there are only a couple of choices for homeless people who don’t dare venture into a restaurant, bank, gas station or other business. There is the public bathroom on the Pearl Street Mall near the courthouse. Then there is a Porta-Potty near the Boulder Public Library.

“And they don’t change that often enough, so that’s the nastiest thing you’ve ever seen,” Homner says.

He explains that the bathroom dilemma, coupled with the Boulder anti-camping ordinance that encourages the homeless to hunker down in wellhidden places where they won’t get ticketed for sleeping under a tarp or blanket, translates into some dry mouths and bladders.

“You don’t drink liquids after 6, because if you get up, you might be detected, or you lose your body heat,” Homner says.

Some homeless people eat candy or chew gum in the evening to keep their mouth wet after having their last sips of water for the night.

“Housed people walk six steps to go to the bathroom,” he notes. “For the homeless, it’s a job.”

A typical day on the street in Boulder, according to Homner, involves waking up after minimal sleep, after keeping an eye out for cops and thieves all night. Three hours of sleep is about average, he says, adding that when the cops would catch him sleeping and kick him, he’d say he was star-gazing.

Upon waking, your first task as a homeless person is to find a bathroom, toting a heavy backpack, usually. Then you head somewhere to hang out, or to

the Bridge House for breakfast and, if you’re lucky, a shower. Most spend time around the library and the downtown parks, followed by lunch at the Bridge House, Homner says. Starting at 5 p.m., you might wander down to whichever church is serving dinner through the Bridge House’s Community Table program. Of course, one of those churches is near Baseline Road and Foothills Parkway, which is a long way from downtown.

“Think about that,” he says. “They’re carrying a pack weighing between 50 and 100 pounds. The church has a van, but space is limited. So a lot of people decide not to eat that night.”

After dinner, you find a restroom and a hidden spot to sleep. But those locations can be highly coveted and the cause of disputes, Homner says. Some take the chance of leaving their belongings under the bush or tree where they plan to sleep, but items might be confiscated by the cops or stolen by other homeless people.

And when night falls, the whole process starts over again.

* * * *

Homner says that most homeless people want to find jobs, despite the common perception of the homeless bum making a living flying a sign on the corner. But he insists that they face an uphill battle. In addition to likely not having much of a resume, there are the little things.

“When you get a job, do you tell them you’re homeless?” he asks. “You’ve got to put an address on the W-2. Luckily the Shelter and Bridge House let you use their address. … But if you call in sick one day, you’re booted, because there are 50 other people waiting to get in.”

Plus, considering the current unemployment situation, and the fact that the average age of the homeless person is between 45 and 55, “who’s going to hire someone that’s 55 and been homeless? … Once you get on the streets, it’s hard to get off.”

But Homner did. Finally. Late last year.

Twice he had received housing vouchers, but due to clerical errors by local agencies, they weren’t delivered to him until after the deadline for redeeming them.

He has bipolar disorder, and he only missed one Mental Health Partners (MHP) appointment over the course of several years, a track record that helped him secure an MHP apartment he could afford with his Social Security check and a special mental health voucher.

“Housing changes everything,” he says.

Now he serves on the board of directors for Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow, or BOHO, the group that provides overflow shelter space for the homeless at area churches when the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless is full.

He still has the 1986 Toyota Celica that his friends gave him. It has 260,000 miles on it. “It’s hell to sleep in,” he says with a smile.

Homner adds that with his new apartment, he’s not as reliant on the car, because he can take the bus for free.

“I’m extremely lucky to get this place, because it comes with an EcoPass,” he says.

Others aren’t so lucky, according to Homner. Because there is not much affordable housing in Boulder, many homeless end up in Longmont, where they get disconnected from the support system they built up.

“You lose your family,” he says. “There is a true community here, and people look out for each other.”