Terminally homeless in Boulder

Man struggles with kidney failure while living on the streets

Photo by Jefferson Dodge
Shannon Balousek with her sign

Jason Balousek suffers from kidney failure and has been told he only has a matter of weeks to live.


When he heard that news, it made him happy, much to his doctor’s surprise.

At this point, he says, death is preferable to the life he’s been leading.

* * * *

Jason is homeless. He wanders downtown Boulder streets with his wife, Shannon, who suffers from mental illness. People see his four broken dialysis ports, the damaged veins on his arms, and think he’s hooked on drugs. One time at a 7-Eleven a worker told him, “You people keep clogging the toilets with your needles.”

People have associated symptoms of his polycystic kidney condition, hypertension and pancreatitis with being drunk. They see the 42-year-old’s tattoos and assume he got those while he was in prison. He gets hassled by authority figures more when he wears short-sleeved shirts that expose his ink.

But he says he never does drugs, doesn’t drink and has never been to prison.

He emphasizes that the kidney failure was not caused by alcohol abuse. It is a genetic condition he inherited from his mother.

“I’m so sick of being treated like a criminal, like I’ve done something wrong,” Jason says. “Not everyone out here is a drunk. Not everyone out here does drugs. … Stuff like that drives me insane.”

The dialysis ports, or “fistulas,” that doctors have tried to implant keep breaking and are impossible to keep clean because of his homeless lifestyle.

“They don’t understand that carrying a backpack all day, sleeping on the concrete at night, it’s just not possible,” he wrote on the Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow Facebook page. “Part of why I quit going to dialysis completely was because after a treatment I would be so exhausted. Where did they expect me to rest? I would get a ticket for sleeping.”

Now he’s sitting outside a coffee shop near the Pearl Street Mall where the tables and chairs are chained to a pole to keep them from being stolen. Shannon stands behind him, puts her arms around his shoulders and laments the city’s anti-camping ordinance, which has made it against the law to sleep under any kind of shelter, even a blanket or tarp.

“It’s illegal to sleep,” she says. “You’ll get a camping ticket.”

“I have no place to lay down,” Jason adds.

* * * *

“We just fell through the cracks,” Shannon says of what happened to the couple during the past three years.

“I just got sick,” Jason explains, recounting the path that led him to this place. The Chicago native says his parents split when he was a baby, and he spent a lot of time in foster homes growing up. Up until a few years ago, Jason was working two jobs, at a motel and restaurant, seven days a week in Madison, Wis. His condition, in which the kidneys stop filtering out toxins, worsened, to the point where the only thing he could consume without throwing up was milk.

“I drank a gallon of milk a day for six months,” he says.

He put off going to the doctor because he couldn’t afford it. But one day he was so sick he had to go to the hospital, where he was told he’d need dialysis the rest of his life — or a transplant.

A surgical procedure to place a catheter in his chest for dialysis treatments created a clot in his heart. The motel closed, and Jason lost the other job because the kidney failure and associated medications made him too dizzy to work — or, as Shannon describes it, “He was a zombie.”

The medical complications continued, even worsened, in part because he could no longer work and didn’t have the money for proper treatment.

“So I kind of freaked out and hopped a bus to Colorado,” says Jason, who as a kid had once seen the Rocky Mountains in Montana. “I wanted to be close to the mountains when I die.”

The couple was in Manitou Springs when Jason had a seizure and ended up breaking two fistulas that had been implanted.

“Being homeless is not conducive to recovering from surgery,” Shannon says.

Jason adds, “They expect me to walk around homeless with a tube hanging out of my chest.”

Since he could not seem to keep the fistulas clean and intact, he was forced to have emergency dialysis at the hospital every three to four months. But now he’s all but given up on treating his condition.

“I’m really frustrated these days,” Jason says. “I’m not sure what to do. I’m done with dialysis, that’s for sure. I’m done. I’d rather have quality of life instead of quantity at this point.”

* * * *

The couple has two sons, age 9 and 7, who live with Shannon’s aunt and uncle in Wisconsin. Jason says he doesn’t like his kids seeing him in the hospital.

“The kids don’t know how sick I am,” he whispers, as if they are nearby.

He has older kids, too, from previous relationships: a 20-year-old son, a 22-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old daughter. He recently returned to Wisconsin to visit one of them and ended up in the emergency room for dialysis, during which he vomited, messing up the needles and causing his arm to swell up.

In Boulder, the two regularly eat meals at the Bridge House, and Shannon “flies a sign” at the McDonald’s on Baseline. Her sign reads, “McHungry! McThank You! I Love Nuggets!” She mentions “McHippies,” one of her favorite Facebook groups.

Shannon says the couple can’t make it back to their usual campsite near the west end of Arapahoe Avenue anymore because Jason can’t walk that far.

He gets only about $280 of his $750 disability check because of deductions for child support and Medicare. Jason figures he’s been in the hospital 18 times in the last two years.

“I can’t seem to stay out of the place,” he says. “I can’t do it anymore. It’s an impossible scenario, is what it is.”

Shannon walks down the sidewalk for a smoke, and Jason confides that he’s gotten into some fights because other homeless guys hit on her. He says predators see a woman on the street as prey.

“To be honest, I can’t really call this living anymore,” he wrote on the BOHO Facebook page. “I’m looking forward to getting off such a cruel planet. This is the only light at the end of this tunnel.”

But as defeated as he seems, Jason hasn’t given up on the idea that he still has some rewarding moments left with his wife.

“I guess we’re just waiting for fate together, and trying to have as many good days as we can,” he says as Shannon returns to the table.

* * * *

“I wanted to share my story more than anything because I am so tired of this attitude that because someone is homeless they must have ‘done something wrong,’” Jason concludes in his Facebook post. “Not all of us are here because of decisions we have made. Not all of us are here because of poor life choices. I was given no choice in this.

“At this point I feel more sorry for all of you,” he writes. “I will be dead soon and won’t have to deal with all of this hate and indifference anymore. I just hope my story might help someone else in the future.”

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