Image: Ansellia Kulikku.

O

n Day Seven of my monthlong stint as a writer in residence at Fort Lyon, I lay sick in my bunk, periodically lurching to a utility closet to retch. I needed drugs and electrolytes, but had no way to get them. I was without a car, stuck in a homeless shelter—a half-empty cluster of barracks an hour west of Kansas.

It was the food that had lain me low, the same food the residents gratefully lined up to raven down. Some of them hadn’t been able to count on a meal in years. Meanwhile, my system was pampered by home cooking. Entrées that couldn’t be easily named—greasy pasta, say, heaped under sugary meat—were new to me. I was learning what the residents already knew: if they serve something you like, get seconds and hoard it because you don’t know what might happen next. Spoon what you can into a mug or fold it into one of the papery bathroom towels for later.

We were forbidden to take food out of the dining hall, but you had to break that rule. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, under whose auspices Fort Lyon dubbed itself a “Supportive Residential Community,” had instituted restrictions. Most websites were inaccessible from its in-house online system, all prescription drugs had to be dispensed by staff, and married couples were forbidden from sharing a room.

“It’s better than the Salvation Army for sure,” one of the residents explained to me. “Salvation Army makes you pray on command and keep your top button buttoned.”

“No, no,” an older resident cut in. “There’s no comparison with stuff like that. This place is paradise. This is paradise.”

I thought about this as I rose from my bunk—about how different his life was from mine—and worked up the strength to get myself to the clinic in the main building. Once I figured there was nothing left in my system to choke up, I put on a hat and some shoes and slowly walked through the sub-basement tunnel that connected all four of the biggest dorms. First I passed a line of empty classrooms, then a long hall to the library. After the library came a dogleg: rows of brass mailboxes that used to connect the ancient fort to the outside world, then empty hospital rooms, a nonworking kitchen, and finally the elevators to Building 5.

Prior to housing a shelter, the place had been a prison. Before that, it was a VA hospital, and before that a mental institution, and before that a cavalry fort, from which the Sand Creek Massacre was launched, in 1864. One hundred and fifty women and children and elderly men of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, were slaughtered in a matter of hours. The stables where their horses had been fed and watered later stood in back of the fort, blocking our view of the Arkansas River, once Mexico’s border, now swimming with the catfish breaded and fried on a hot plate in the kitchen downstairs.

The grounds of the fort covered more than five hundred acres. I’d been given a master key. Outside the residential barracks I made a habit of trying every door, and behind them I found piles of rusted wheelchairs, broken crutches, remnants of the shuttered hospital. Other rooms were stacked with gurneys and ancient X-ray machines. Here and there you’d find signs of squatters: an L-shaped closet with a stained mattress, a stack of candy wrappers, Tupperware.

The main hall in the main building was usually populated because the offices lay at one end and the mess at the other. The clinic was located toward the front, its door cracked open. My phone told me it was 4:45 p.m. It was Friday, and the clinic would close any moment for the weekend. Through a haze of dehydration I spotted a woman at the counter and she looked up, startled.

“Are you a resident?”

“I’m a teacher.”

“But do you live here?”

“Temporarily.”

“Everyone’s here temporarily.”

She couldn’t break the rules. All of the residents at Fort Lyon had been addicted to some kind of drug before they arrived—addiction was a prerequisite—and the infirmary had to keep strict paperwork, even if all I wanted was Pepto Bismol. She told me if I was sick I should drive into town.

“But I don’t have a car.”

“There’ll be a bus tomorrow afternoon.”

I gave up on feeling any better as I walked from the clinic and across the quad back to my room, hardly taking in the view, to which I’d become accustomed. Down the path to the main road, a high row of hay bales concealed the outbuildings of an unused farm. Golden sagebrush had blown there and blocked the passages. The first signs of life I came across one early morning exploring were live chickens in a coop behind the stables, ducks in another. I thought I’d imagined them. My new friend Cas told me that one of the other residents scattered chicken feed twice a day.

Cas was a gossip, which I liked. He was reorganizing the large library room downstairs between sessions engraving nudes in the art room (from memory, for the time being, but Cas was a charmer). “Cas is a con man,” one woman told me—and she’d met her share of them. There’s a parallel universe in which Cas emcees a nightly show in Vegas and another in which he emcees the same show in the Catskills. He’s short and muscular and talks at high speed.

He stopped me on the way back to my room to tell me all about a vintage Captain America comic he’d found on a bench that was worth too much ever to sell. I cut him off, explaining I needed to find a quiet place to vomit. He understood and said he’d catch up with me later, but was there anything he could do? Well, would he mind spreading the word that I was looking for some kind of cure?

Within the hour I was peeling open a packet of bismuth tablets. I learned that things often worked that way among residents: you put the word out about what you needed and maybe it found its way back to you. As for electrolytes, those were too valuable to hand off free, but, Cas pondered, gosh, there were a couple of fellas who ran an informal dry goods out of the room one floor above my own. Did I know anything about it?

Upstairs, I knocked three times on the door’s curtained window, which opened onto a thickly stocked corner market. The roommates made weekly runs to town to buy supplies with the previous week’s proceeds, and they had sports drinks and ginger ale in the cooler. They didn’t have saltines, but they knew a man in the kitchen who’d hook me up.  

By the next day, thanks to Cas and the guys from the store, I was back to my typical morning ritual: wake, rise, shoes, sweatshirt, grab toothbrush, thermos, razor, don’t forget keys, ensure door’s locked, bathroom down the hall, brush, shave, return keys to the table beneath the tacked-up paper in my handwriting that reads take keys.

Speed and efficiency mattered. I was friendly and the residents were lonely—I was lonely, too—but I don’t like to talk before I’ve brushed my teeth. Fort Lyon was the Carlyle Hotel of shelters, but even there it took discipline to remain hygienic. The bathrooms in Building 8 were bereft of soap; you had to bring your own and keep it carefully. One of the residents, insufficiently medicated, squeezed the bottles down the sink. There were no counselors on site.

*

Mental illness—underdiagnosed even among the general population—was epidemic. One resident, Jaime, who had used drugs to mask his anxiety, finally worked up the courage to talk to someone about the shelter, get an application for up to two years at Fort Lyon, climb on the bus in Denver, and ride four hours east. Upon reaching the shelter, he felt that old anxiety quicken. I understood. I have a comfortable home and a loving wife back in Denver. But when my ride dropped me off at a half-abandoned cluster of institutional buildings hours from home and I heard the metal fire door of my room fall shut behind me, I also felt anxious. It would be another month until Elisa arrived to collect me.  

There’s a brief questionnaire that social workers administer to determine the level of trauma in someone’s childhood. Ten questions measure three categories: abuse (physical, psychological, sexual); neglect (did you go hungry? were your parents addicts?); and household dysfunction (were family members imprisoned? was your mother beaten?). More than half of the people who take the test score less than 4 on this scale. I score a 3 and my wife scores a 0. My four closest friends score a 2, a 1, a 3, and a 0. Jaime, based on what he told me over the course of my stay, had to be well over a 7.

“I can’t tell people about the things that happened to me,” he said. “I mean, I can’t bring myself to. Like, when I was a kid my dad used to pick me up and swing me around by the ears. It hurt like you couldn’t believe it.”

Bad things start to emerge at a score of 4 and over. Score over a 4 and, statistically, you’re four times more likely to become addicted to drugs, to fall victim to domestic violence, to suffer anxiety and depression. (Of myself and the five friends noted above, the two with the highest scores are the two taking antidepressants.) Your number of sexual partners climbs. Your risk of early death does, too. So does your risk of heart disease, emphysema, and obesity.

Another phenomenon becomes likely: you begin to blame yourself for your problems, much in the way that abusers have likely been blaming you for years. I didn’t tell this to Jaime—I didn’t tell him anything about the ACE. But what he shared with me seemed to line up. “My dad would beat me up and I feel guilty about that. You tell people that, they think, ‘Well, what’d you do to make him?’ People blame you for what happened to you. People say, ‘Well, you must have been a bad kid.’ Or if they don’t say it, they think it.”

I met Jaime in a class I taught each afternoon in a room behind the groundskeeper’s office—the creative writing class that the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a writing center based in Denver, had sent me to Fort Lyon to lead. I was cautioned about the importance of sticking as closely as possible to a regular schedule since, as one of the program’s advocates in Denver had told me, “These people are conditioned to be let down and forgotten about. So try to be there when you say you’ll be.”

The classroom had a long table and some ailing potted plants. It also had an unpredictable number of students. Living that far from town makes logistics tricky. Students who showed up Monday might be busy with an AA meeting Tuesday, a doctor’s appointment Wednesday, and a GED class Friday. I threw out my plans when I arrived and taught only stand-alone classes: poetry one day, fiction the next, personal stories the day after.

Jaime wrote a poem about the stress of time passing. One of the guys from the samizdat soda store wrote about the beauty of differing spectrums of light. But most residents wanted to tell their stories straight: this is what happened to me, and this is why I’m here.

I’d start each day with a simple exercise and try to build to something more complex. In reading their work, my students often strayed from what they’d written, some not even looking at the text as they told me their stories aloud—the gist of them, anyway, narrating the color they couldn’t yet bring to the page. Eventually, I’d schedule evening talks where we’d sit down together one-on-one. I’d take dictation to start and we’d revise the pieces together.

Working with Jaime wasn’t like that. I’d give him a prompt in class and he’d make something beautiful out of it right away, at least when he was able to make it to class. He worked in the mess hall most afternoons and aggressively applied himself. “I love it when people tell me I’m doing a good job,” he told me in the hall on his way there early. “They weren’t sure what to do with the space by the window and I said, ‘Well, what if we had a salad bar?’ And they said yes and it’s just great—and now it’s my space. Then people ask me, ‘How about fruit?’ So I get my hands on some.”

When Jaime and I talked after class, the former addict came across as impossibly sweet. Though he’s over thirty and plenty smart, he isn’t especially confident. I kept thinking of him as younger than he was because he seemed so frightened. He keeps to himself, hides his ears inside headphones, speaks soft and shy.

“My brother…” he’d start and pause. He was agitated, undermedicated. He looked afraid. “He was smoking crack and he’d just take things. He took things from my mother—my mother’s an alcoholic and didn’t notice half the time—and my brother took things from me, cleaned me out. I tried to get him to quit, but he kept saying, ‘You don’t know what it’s like. You gotta try it.’ So I smoked crack with him. I figured it’d make him comfortable, make him feel like he could listen to me. And then I’d work on getting him sober, trying to help him to change.”

He’d been in and out of institutions for thirty years: foster care, shelters. It’s hard to look at Jaime and conclude anything other than he never had a chance. And yet, by the standards of Fort Lyon’s new arrivals, he wasn’t doing badly. When residents first arrived at the fort and submitted to intake (clothes laundered, mandatory shower, paperwork), they often resembled the sort of people you see in news photographs emerging from explosions. Their world had exploded. Most nakedly suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Homelessness traumatizes its victims. We might even call it a triple trauma. First, your life falls apart: family and friends shut their doors; your belongings disappear. This is a kind of living death. Then you’re traumatized again, separately but relatedly, by the stress of living in danger. Shelters are lousy with drugs and violence; streets are cold and your last possessions are imperiled. You’re disdained by your fellow man. You’re lucky if the despair doesn’t drive you to addiction, but addiction is a third kind of trauma when it arrives.

Months after we parted ways, his anxiety most likely at a fever pitch, Jaime got hold of a joint and smoked it. In response, Fort Lyon expelled him from the program.

*

Taking part in life around Fort Lyon, I grew increasingly able to spot new arrivals. Residents who’d been around for a few weeks or more were generally indistinguishable from the staff, but new residents still had the dull, haunted look of sleeplessness in their eyes, the posture of paranoia. They kept their heads down, wore bruises and cuts, seemed ready to bolt at any moment.

Rose, a woman I met in the hall by the administration desk, still shook from acute withdrawal. Her hair was either brown or unwashed, and her skin was that of a woman of sixty, though she was likely no older than forty-five.

I pulled up a chair beside her, slowly, then asked her what she was reading—she had Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle in her hands. From there, haltingly, she got on to the subject of waitressing, her former profession.

“Seven years I was a waitress,” she said, looking up whenever footfalls sounded in the hall. “I never thought I’d be homeless but it happened fast. Like, it was lightning fast. I stayed at the shelter in Grand Junction on and off for two years, whenever I needed a shower or a meal. But you wouldn’t want to sleep there—it was an awful place. People shooting up in the bathroom, people angry at the world, all kinds of bad emotion. You get angry at the world, though; you’d get real suspicious of people, really anxious. I never felt calm for two years.”

This is typical. Fort Lyon aims to provide a different model, what it calls “trauma-informed care.” The philosophy holds that until you separate yourself from the fear you’ve been living in and the chronic stress that fear creates, you won’t be physically capable of addressing your situation. Or, for that matter, doing anything rational. By its model, Fort Lyon is right to wrest people out of the cities where they slept on the street and collected scorn.

Over the long term, fight-or-flight responses change our blood pressure and release hormones like corticotropin and cortisol that can drastically inflect our mental state. Our sense of empathy falters, as does our self-esteem. The American Psychological Association lists anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system among the effects of chronic stress. Military veterans, addicts, and survivors of sexual abuse are frequent victims of such stress, and Fort Lyon has residents who fall into all three camps.

“I’m used to cities,” said one woman, who told me that she was originally from Alaska. What other cities had she lived in? “Oh, well. Wasilla for a while. It’s not big, like real big, but the mountains keep you company. And Grand Junction in Colorado. But this…” She gestured out a window, beyond which rose the red brick of Building 5. But I knew she meant something else—she meant the fields beyond Building 5, fields that kept rolling dry and low until Missouri.

That Sunday, I wanted to find a good breakfast. The only eggs I saw at the Fort were powdered, and I had only seen them once. I looked up “La Junta restaurants” on one of the two old Department of Corrections desktop PCs at the Fort Lyon library and found what I wanted: Copper Kitchen, forty-five minutes east on the shuttle.

The owner, Larry Tanner, grabbed my hand when I came in the door. He squeezed on the bones like I owed him money, but in a friendly way. “Welcome! Where you from? What brings you into town?”  

He wore a waxed mustache and spoke strongly. “They sent you to give us a good write-up? Well, you talk us up now, because we want that fort to stay open. Have you been down there yet? Well, you meet those people and they just got opened right up. They got the Lord in ’em. You’ll see it. They got the light of the Lord and they start to use their talents and they just change completely.”

He’s right that residents often transform thoroughly during their stay. But that transformation is less apotheosis than relaxation: a falling back into the people they’d like to be, rather than the people they’ve been forced to become.

*

I have close relatives in Alcoholics Anonymous, but I’d never been to a meeting. I didn’t even know such a thing was allowed. My only direct experience with the organization occurred when I gave a family member a ride to the session at my hometown church, then read for an hour in the park across the street.

One of my closest friends among the residents, Nancy, had grown up in a famously wealthy Connecticut town across the state from the one where I’d grown up. Her father, an industrialist, had lost their fortune, and two of her three brothers became chronic substance abusers. So did Nancy.

“I only drank when I couldn’t get codeine,” she told me one evening as Jaime set out last night’s leftovers behind us. If it hadn’t been for AA, she said, she’d still be looking through dumpsters for carelessly discarded pills. “If you want to understand the people here,” she said, “you’ve got to come with me tonight. When they go around the room just say, ‘My name is John,’ and don’t say anything else. But it’s an open meeting so anyone can come—you aren’t breaking any rules.” She smirked, perhaps seeing the suggestion made me nervous.

We walked to the meeting room together in the 8:30 dark of early spring. I’d gone quiet, worried about saying or doing the wrong thing while I was there, as though it were a sacred occasion.

And it was a sacred occasion. Or, at least, it was treated as one. Sitting in the converted gymnasium where the meeting was held, beneath a large plaque bearing the names of the residents who had died in the last two years, I felt both the solemn restlessness I’d felt on Sunday mornings as a kid and the worried watchfulness of someone who hasn’t done their homework. All the while I kept as quiet as Nancy had told me to keep and listened as carefully as I could.

Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous do great work at Fort Lyon, holding at least one meeting every night. AA is necessary because there isn’t funding for formal counselors. Even if there were, getting mental-health professionals out to Las Animas would be a trick. When, like Jaime, residents shy from AA, they have no formal program to guide them, no addiction counseling on site. The recovery program at Fort Lyon is AA or nothing.

Though AA leaves some residents deprived, most have eagerly joined its ranks. Rick, a two-year resident leaving for a new place in Denver, has metabolized the AA Big Book. When I met him, he flourished a list of meetings in his new city that the main office had printed out for him ahead of his return: “Look at this—long lists of Sunday, three pages. Monday’s three pages.

“I’ve been in recovery six years,” he told me. “What I learned is that, to build a network for when you leave, you have to build a network now, while you’re here. I don’t go to the Fort Lyon meeting every day. I go to Las Animas, La Junta too. You meet people, build. They look out for me, keep an eye on me; I keep an eye on them.”

Rick grew up on the South Side of Chicago. He has seven kids and grandkids back home, but he won’t be going back for good himself. “Chicago messed me up and Denver got me clean. You know, I disagree with some people—I think a change of scene can make a difference. People say it can’t, but I know it can. My problem isn’t the liquor or the crack. My problem is Rick. It’s up here,” he said, pointing to his head.

On the same day, at dinner, I joined my friends Nancy and Cas at their table in the mess hall. A third man about my age was there. He was quiet, disaffected, absently putting away his food. I never caught his name—I’m hard of hearing and the staff was stacking plates not far away, muddying the sound—but I’ll call him Carl. He was leaving Fort Lyon to join a friend in Missouri with whom he was writing a book. He said he was born and grew up in Boston.

Carl wasn’t particularly interested in talking with me, but I was interested in talking with Carl—Fort Lyon was a long way from Boston. I’d gone to school there, Emerson College, as a clueless undergraduate. I told him so.

“Oh, yeah, that’s where I went, too,” he said, betraying no surprise. “It would have been a few years before you, but I lived in a dorm they closed down just after—a weird old hotel called the Charlesgate.”

It was then I noticed that Carl was wearing an Emerson College T-shirt, a gray one with faded lettering. Why hadn’t I seen it before?

“When I lived in Charlesgate,” I said, “I had a view of the Storrow overpass.”

“Oh?” he said. “I had that view too. We had the corner room on floor three.”

I know the room. A good friend had lived there only a few years after Carl. And here Carl and I were—two decades later—having both slept the night in that corner room, anxious about our first year at college, a year in which we had both fallen prey to dissipation.

“I was a stand-up comedian,” he said, naming a troupe whose shows I’d seen. “A lot of comedians drink, and lots of them are more fun when they drink. But I wasn’t more fun.”

He cleared his tray—said something about having things to pack for Missouri—and disappeared down the hall. I disappeared too, into a vacant office. I made some notes about our conversation until the stillness of the room and the emptiness of that floor of the building made me restless. I entered a hallway I shouldn’t have entered and wound up in the infirmary. There were a few stretchers lining the corridor and an empty oxygen tank. One translucent window flickered with light. I heard a scrape from upstairs.

Walking back to my room alone that night, through the half-abandoned quad in the uncompromising wind you find on the plains, I realized that I was not merely touched by anxiousness but panicked. My breath went short, my fingers numbed. I knew I had to fight or run, but instead of doing either I froze up.

The depths of my hypocrisy were being sounded. Like a lot of people, I’ve nodded along when someone else explained that homelessness could happen to anyone. I’ve piously mumbled assent. But I’d never believed it. That’s what I learned on my nervous walk around the empty playground and abandoned farm inside Fort Lyon’s walls: I’d never really believed it. In the way we all feel immortal in our youth, I used to think I’d manage to escape the worst no matter what. Yes, the worst could happen to anyone. But most of those to whom the worst occurs either never had a chance or let their guard down at a crucial moment, which I most assuredly would not do. The fear I felt during my brief time inside the shelter was what the other residents felt not occasionally but often. It was the fear they lived inside.

Here’s the part that seemed irrational, and still does: I wasn’t just afraid because I now understood that anyone could suffer what they suffered. I was afraid that the moment of disaster for myself had taken place already. That my life, as I knew it, was gone. Does that sound indulgent? Either way, I couldn’t help it.

In the following days, that fear kept prodding me, telling me I’d been forsaken. I began to feel that Denver was not my home anymore, that I wouldn’t be welcomed back. Had my wife and my friends already deserted me, or was it only a matter of time? Had my family in the Midwest and Southwest and New England shut their doors? I’m handicapped from bilateral Ménière’s disease—this part wasn’t a delusion—and because my hearing is collapsing and I’m prone to frequent vertigo, I don’t have the earning power that I had five years ago. When things go wrong I order a drink. How much do I like that drink?

I knew, of course, that I wasn’t abandoned—but I also didn’t know. I called my wife and some friends and tried to make myself heard through the wind as it bent the trees and scattered twigs across my path. But no one could fathom my worry.

I weighed what kept me from permanent residence at Fort Lyon, and it didn’t weigh much. Though I have family, my parents are getting older and my sister is far away with kids to raise. My wife and I love each other, but I take her goodwill for granted. Illness and deafness have kept me from staying in better touch with friends. I work longer hours because they earn me less. Yes, it would take time for everything to fall apart, but it wouldn’t feel like it took any time at all.

Of course, Elisa did arrive at the fort—unlike Jaime’s mother, Cas’s ex-wife, and Rick’s children. She came to collect me in our Subaru and Cas went out to meet her. They were friends by the time I met up with them. On the way out, he gave me a picture he’d painted one night in jail: a slithery tree out of a swords-and-sorcery comic with a valiant prince and lithe maid.

“I used M&Ms to paint it. You can get some in jail sometimes and you just put them in a little cup until the dye washes off and that tints the water. Use a couple of toothbrush bristles to make your brush.”  

I felt weird driving away from the place where I’d been sheltered, fed, benignly neglected by the administration, and taken care of by the residents. On a stop for dinner, Elisa caught me slipping some of the burger joint’s free mustard packets into my pocket.

“Are you stealing those? Do you need mustard on the ride?”

I started to say, “I’m taking them for my room,” but stopped myself and shook my head. We’d planned to crash in Pueblo on the way home. The first night in our hotel room, we fought about money and I was defensive. We made up in the morning, and as we left the hotel I walked slowly, concentrating on the postures of everyone around me, their clothes, their expressions.

“What is it, sweetie?” Elisa asked.

“It’s just that everyone’s fashionable,” I said.  

Soon I was one of them too: back in clean clothes, back at work, moving among the busy moneyed crowds of a major city. Everyone had someplace to go.

*

Note: All of the names of Fort Lyon residents have been changed to protect their privacy.

John Cotter

John Cotter is the author of the novel Under the Small Lights. His essays have appeared in Bookforum, Catapult, Electric Literature, Georgia Review, Open Letters Monthly, and Smart Set. A New Englander for most of his life, he currently lives and works in Denver, where he teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Twitter: @smalllights

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