People are just people

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Does marijuana contribute to homlessness, as Gov. Hickenlooper suggests?
Sarah Haas

It’s a sunny afternoon and I’m walking around Boulder trying to find someone experiencing homelessness to talk to about marijuana. Since writing about Gov. Hickenlooper’s state of the state address in which he said, “There’s no question that marijuana and other drugs — in combination with mental illness or other disabling conditions — are essential contributors to chronic homelessness,” I can’t stop thinking about all the assumptions packed into that one little statement.

There’s an interesting phenomenon in the way we regard the very poor — the homeless, the down and out, the vagrants, the derelicts, the beggars, the outcasts. We want them to fit into a group that can be counted, studied, understood and maybe even fixed.

So we try to define them as numbers (10,555 people living in homelessness in Colorado in January 2016) and statistics (there has been an 8 percent increase in homeless individuals in Colorado since 2013). But buried under these categorical explanations is the messy heart of the matter — there are as many reasons for homelessness as there are people living it.

Heading north, I pass two guys sitting on a low, cinder-block wall at the end of Broadway, so I park my truck and walk through the warehouse parking lot in hopes of learning their story.

One of them, 59-year-old, gray-bearded Cliff McLean, tells me in a worn-down, southern drawl that he’s originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, but was raised in South Carolina by way of Georgia. He calls himself chronically homeless or in other words “homeless for a longtime, off and on, but mostly on.”

In the ’70s and ’80s he hopped trains until the punishment for getting caught was no longer worth the risk. Finding himself in Denver, he stayed in “mop and lock” hotels for $60 a week while he worked construction for Charter Builders.

“Seem like Denver is always growing and going strong. Now they are building again like they were back then, with all the high rises and stuff. I guess there are always going to be people coming into Colorado.”

He brings up a good point: it’s not just the homeless population that’s growing in Colorado, but the state’s general population is growing too, with a 7.5 percent increase since 2010.

While I may linger on the point, McLean doesn’t see the need to determine which segments of the population are responsible for the growth.

“People are just people,” he reminds me. He used to think that way, though, that there was a difference between him, who was broken, and everyone else, who were OK.

“That somehow I was the one to blame…,” his voice trails off.

But now he says he knows better, that “education has changed” and now we know people don’t become homeless because they’re broken, but because of a complex web of social and personal factors and that makes him feel, “well… better.”

“I’ve enjoyed my life,” he says. “I have roamed around the country and seen a lot of stuff, but as I was telling my friend here, on March 30 I’ll be 60 and it’s time for me to get off the streets now. I’ve seen two people down at the river this year froze to death, and I just don’t want to go out like that.”

It’s been a fine way to live so far, but he says that with the 15 or so years he’s got left, the cold and the violence that comes with homelessness seems especially brutal. 

“You wanna know where marijuana comes in? Here,” he says. “Since marijuana has gone legal, the alcohol use has gone down and the violence, too, and that’s a good thing. Alcohol has killed more people than I like to recount, believe me, because I have seen it. People now choose to smoke marijuana and not sit there with the bottle all day and when you sit there with the bottle all day… problems.”

His friend, Session Leslie, laughs out loud in hearty agreement. “Yeah, I’ve seen the violence go down, too. And [cannabis] makes me relaxed, I like the feeling of it. But that’s definitely not why I’m homeless. I’m homeless for similar reasons Cliff here is homeless: family abuse, other issues, dropped out of school early, things of that nature.”

I ask McLean what he thinks about “blaming” homelessness on marijuana use.

“That’s bunk,” he says. “More people are not becoming homeless because they are smoking. I mean, how could you even say something like that? Blame it on the homeless.” He pauses for a hearty laugh with Leslie. “Like we can go out and afford $50 worth of weed, man, that’s just hilarious.”

When the laughter quiets he takes on a somber tone and becomes soft spoken again.

“Listen, I am very proud of Colorado and what they have done with the legal weed system.”