His name was Robert Joseph Smith, and for years, he made his home in a tent somewhere in Colorado Springs.
Recently, though, something clicked in him. He decided it was time to stop being homeless. He had connected with the Resource Advocate Program at Springs Rescue Mission, and with help from its manager, Sarah Stacy, the 50-year-old Army veteran filed for VA benefits. He planned to start classes at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs in a few months and was ready to move into his own place.
He never got to live his new life. On Dec. 9, one day before he was supposed to sign paperwork for housing, he was found dead in his tent. The cause of death has not been determined, but to the 20 or so friends who attended a memorial service at the rescue mission Monday, it really doesn’t matter how he died. The man they knew as “Bobbo” and “Rabbi Herschel Rabbinowitz” is no longer with them, and all they wanted to do was remember and celebrate a man who seemed perpetually upbeat.
“Smilin’ Bob, I called him,” said Joe Taylor, who met Smith last winter. “Just looking at the guy would put a smile on your face.”
Little is known about Bob Smith’s personal life. He was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. He had a failed marriage. He was honorably discharged from the Army. Taylor said Smith lost his job and got tired of working day labor, and was content to live in a tent.
But he found a friend in Stacy, who was his sole contact in case of emergency.
“He was such a giving person,” said Stacy, who was unable to attend the memorial service because of a family emergency. “He was always clean and pressed.”
RAP advocates work with homeless clients on their terms, offering help when they’re ready while not forcing it on those who come for a cup of coffee and camaraderie. But Smith was read for change.
“He was happy,” Taylor said. “He said, ‘I’ll be indoors and have a place for your dog so you can go look for work.’ He’d give me half his weed. That’s how he was.”
No one — not the coroner’s office or homeless advocates — can pinpoint how many homeless people die in Colorado Springs each year. Some, like Smith, die outside. Others fade away in nursing homes.
“A lot end up in some facility, so they’re not exactly homeless when they die, but homeless contributed to it,” said Steve Handen, a longtime community activist and homeless advocate. “It’s terrible.”
But many aren’t alone, even if they don’t have blood relatives or have broken ties with them. They have their street family.
“A lot of people don’t realize how close the homeless community is,” said the Rev. David Wilson, an SRM staff member who conducted the service in a community space that Smith had decorated with festive Christmas lights and garland.
“It’s a loving, caring community.”