Writing a new ending for Boulder’s chronically homeless

Complex issues confront the homeless and their community

Photos by Chris Leising

The 76-year-old man who calls himself Reverend Friendly walks with a shuffled gait. Old age and decades of heavy, indiscriminate drinking have reduced his mobility considerably. His long, white beard flows down to his chest, and his eyelids droop heavily over his eyes, giving him the appearance of being permanently sleepy, or at least squinting. A lifelong devotee of poetry, he’s a big fan of Friedrich Nietzsche, and he often repeats a favorite quote: “Slow is the experience of all deep wells. Long must they wait before they know what fell into their depths.”

He wrote his first poem while doing time in San Quentin State Prison in 1965, and he has haunted the open mics in Boulder for most of his two decades here. He doesn’t get out as much as he used to, though. A series of strokes during the past two years robbed him of some of the motor skills necessary for language, and he won’t wear false teeth, which would help him better articulate his words. When he speaks, he is often incomprehensible. His raspy voice, once authoritative and captivating, is now halting and laboured, and he sometimes has trouble remembering all the words to the reams of poems he has memorized over the years.

But when he begins to recite a poem — which sometimes are prosaic in meter and rhythm, like a story — he doesn’t so much speak as fulminate. His eyes sparkle and narrow, his voice regains some of its previous power, and his heavy, wrinkled face becomes animated with the power of verse.

“[Allen Ginsberg] once asked me where I went to college,” he says, with the inflections and presumed moral authority of a street preacher. “I said, ‘I never went to college, thank God. I was in prison. I experienced the intellectual humiliation of a college education. I graduated from San Quentin Prison on the bay of San Francisco, where it rains a lot and the seagulls shit on you.’” He was born Laverne Lobdell in 1935 in Ravenna, Mich. He came to Denver in 1981 on his way to San Diego.

“I got drunk, lost my train ticket, and stayed,” he says. About 10 years later, he migrated to Boulder, where he has spent much of the past two decades spouting poetry and drinking his way into jail, the hospital or the Addiction Recovery Center. He claims to hold the record for intakes into the ARC, numbering around 636. He would drink anything, he says, often vodka or whiskey. If booze wasn’t an option, then he would go for something cheaper — mouthwash, mostly. A lifetime of sleeping on the streets and in shelters and drinking heavily will damage anyone’s health, and the Rev, as friends call him, was no exception.

Then, five years ago, something changed. He was targeted for a program through the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless called Housing First, which identifies members of the chronically homeless population in Boulder and gives them housing with virtually no strings attached, just that they meet regularly with a case worker.
Studies have shown that it’s more effective — and cheaper — to simply give the chronically homeless a place to live, rather than to put them on a more complicated route to permanent housing.

The program focuses on the small percentage of “worst cases” within the homeless population of any city, the people who are “chronically homeless” — defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as either being homeless for more than one year or being homeless for four periods of time in a two-year span.

To qualify, Boulder program participants must have also demonstrated a disability, including addiction.

There was no question that Reverend Friendly was chronically homeless, so the program set him and a live-in caretaker up with a small, two-bedroom apartment off Mohawk and Baseline. In the five years since then, he has been to the ARC just three times, though he was recently hospitalized after drinking.

“Without it,” he says of the program, “my ass would be mud.”

Chris Byrne is Reverend Friendly’s case worker for the Housing First program, having initially met the Rev while volunteering at the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless before becoming a shelter employee. He has been around since Housing First got up and running.

“What we did was we took them off the street and then started working on benefits, health issues, stuff like that. Not sober-only, not trying to make you Amish,” Byrne says. “The only rules you gotta follow are the rules by the landlord of whatever apartment building we can place you in. And by God, it worked.

“The alcohol and addiction issue — well, that was the result of the problem, not the problem. Rev is a pretty good example of putting the cork in the bottle.

… He’s kind of a success story for this thing of ours.”

Housing First, which Boulder Shelter for the Homeless runs jointly with Boulder Housing Partners, Boulder’s housing authority, has 26 participants in 24 apartments scattered across the city. Participants pay 30 percent of their income toward rent.

The Boulder Shelter for the Homeless did a study of the 10 clients in Housing First’s pilot program, and it showed that detox visits, police contacts and visits to medical clinics all drastically dropped. The study also determined that the county saved an average of $15,553 per program participant over the 30 months after the program opened for enrollment.

The Boulder Shelter for the Homeless and Boulder Housing Partners want to expand the Housing First Program, and BHP has purchased a plot of land near the current homeless shelter, intending to use the land to build a 31-unit housing complex.

“In our proposal, the entire staff of the Boulder County Housing First program would be inside that building, and so there’s lots of case management contact, more so than if someone is living out in an apartment by themselves,” says Betsey Martens, executive director of Boulder Housing Partners.

Placing chronically homeless in a building together could ease their access to services and provide some social benefits.

“One of our challenges for our clients is that we take them off the street, and it’s terribly isolating,” says Greg Harms, executive director of the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless. “So if we had a building where there are other folks like them — an instant community — we think that would be really helpful for a certain part of the crowd.”

The proposal has riled some North Boulder residents, who say it’s unfair to house all of the services for Boulder’s homeless in one area. The proposed site, at 1175 Lee Hill Rd., is directly across the street from the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless and blocks away from other emergency housing services such as Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence and the Emergency Family Assistance Association.

Concerned residents have formed a group called the North Boulder Alliance, which is urging the city to intervene and force the Housing First building into another part of town.

Alliance member John Moore, also president of North Briar Homeowners Association, says he is not opposed to concept of Housing First. In fact, he says, he sent a Malcolm Gladwell article (“Million-Dollar Murray”) on the subject to friends when he first read it.

“The idea of putting 30 units in one place is maybe controversial, but I’m also willing to concede that there might be good reasons to do that,” he says. “Really, the issue is one of density.”

He raises a number of other issues, namely safety and petty crime concerns, but he keeps coming back to fairness. Boulder Housing Partners didn’t ask the neighbors for input before buying the parcel of land on Lee Hill Road; rather, he says, the neighborhoods discovered BHP’s plans on their own. The entire city needs to support the homeless population, he argues, not just North Boulder.

And the homeless population does have an effect on the neighborhood, he says, and residents are concerned for their children’s safety.

“I’ve had stolen off my lawn furniture, and there have been break-ins and people’s radios have been stolen out of their car,” Moore says. “Adding another 30 — frankly, the most support-intensive people in the Boulder homeless community — is going to exacerbate that, and I think it could potentially become a frat house for the overnight shelter.”

Moore continues: “The proposed location is directly opposite the final stop for the SKIP. Many of our children use that to get home from school and the after school activities, or Pearl Street. … To house 30 of the most troubled homeless people in the city on the terminus of one of the most popular children’s bus lines is a bad idea.

“If somebody’s got a 13-year-old girl who gets off the bus every day at 4:30, does that sounds like a safe situation to you? Would you bet your daughter’s safety on that?” Harms points out that if you look at the Boulder Police Department’s crime maps, the North Boulder area is very low-crime compared to other neighborhoods such as The Hill, where the vast majority of Boulder’s crimes tend to occur. It’s also worth noting that registered sex offenders, and people with a history of methamphetamine use, are not eligible for the Housing First program. But according to the Boulder Police website, there are at least 11 registered sex offenders in Boulder who have listed their address as either homeless or as living at the Boulder homeless shelter.

Marten says that Boulder Housing Partners has reached out to the neighbors and will continue doing so as the process moves forward.

“We have met with more than 16 groups in the last two months and have been doing a lot of conversation,” she says. Information provided for a City Council study session on Dec. 13 lists 23 meetings with individuals and HOAs between April and December 2011.

But Moore says BHP has barely fulfilled its obligation to meet with the neighbors.

“We have done extensive outreach to Boulder Housing Partners since we discovered this on our own research … and we have raised multiple concerns, and Boulder Housing Partners hasn’t changed their opinion on this an inch,” Moore says. “They are a public operation. They receive public funding, but they haven’t responded.”

Now that he has stable housing, Reverend Friendly is able to direct his attention towards other pursuits, like the Talent Show For the Benefit of the Homeless & Jobless and writing an autobiography titled The Transformation of Laverne Lobdell into Reverend Friendly.

Because of his impaired motor skills, he is unable to do either without assistance, and he is looking for people to help organize the talent show and transcribe his words for his book. (Those interested can contact him at reverendfriendly@gmail.com). He is eager to share his “cream of the crop of the wisdom of the ages” with whoever will listen. It’s a significant change for those who know him.

“The chances of Laverne being housed, being alive five more years after drinking cleaning products … Who woulda thunk that he would have become way high-functioning again and have a purpose,” Byrne, his caseworker, says. “Reverend Friendly is definitely the oldest one in our program. … There’s a lot of support out there for people with health issues, mental health issues, addiction issues.

“There’s hope for the world.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com