March 4, 2013
Tears born of years of hardscrabble living on the street dwell just beneath Randy Eugene Collins’ skin.
Hunger, but no food.
Sleeping in a three-man tent cocooned inside a six-man tent as insulation against the bone-chilling cold halfway up the Manitou Incline hill, separated from a family that doesn’t know he’s alive, each day lonelier than the one before.
“I’ve known Randy for six months now,” said Manitou Springs resident Vincent LaFrance, 61. “He has the hardest street life of anyone here.”
Things are looking up, though it doesn’t take much when you are homeless.
Collins on Friday moved from his spot on the hill to an 8-foot-by-12-foot Tuff Shed in the backyard of a house looking down on the heart of Manitou Springs.
Walls, he said.
That hourlong trek from his makeshift abode to Manitou, where he panhandles the day away, is history.
But the biggest positive coming Collins’ way arrived Sunday, when he saw his mother, Ramona Newago, for the first time in about 14 years.
Collins spent much of Sunday evening nervous and stressing. A bit of miscommunication led to his mother’s arrival about two hours later than he expected.
But when the Greyhound bus finally pulled into the station just after 9:45 p.m. in Colorado Springs, Collins greeted Newago with hugs, tears and a kiss.
“I was nervous, excited and glad that she’s still alive and I can say hello again and love her,” Collins said, holding his mother’s hand in the bus station on Weber Street just south of downtown.
Collins had contacted Newago in early February in hopes of reconnecting. And two weeks later, his mother purchased a bus ticket to come to the Pikes Peak region.
Her trip was a long one from Hemet, Calif. She boarded the bus Saturday just after 6 p.m. and found herself tired and impatiently waiting as the Greyhound slowly made its way along Interstate 70. The last leg of the journey was slowed by typical late afternoon Colorado ski traffic.
“I was kind of worried,” Newago said of her delayed arrival.
Collins immediately asked his mother if she was hungry and told her he’d take her out for a bite to eat. He spent Sunday afternoon buffing a friend’s car in Manitou Springs “so I could take Mom to dinner,” Collins said.
The journey home
On Friday, the homeless 41-year-old cried twice — when talking about his mother, and when he described how it feels to survive day to day from scraps, hand-me-downs and donations on the street.
He wears a dirty, tan coverall, ski hat, cloth gloves with a fingertip poking through.
His hair is unkempt and long, his beard heavy and rough. He boils with energy as he talks on the street in front of The Mate Factor Cafe, his arms waving. He gets free coffee here, his favorite spot. And local residents passing by greet him and give him gifts.
Tim Tollefsrud pops by with a loaf of leftover bread from a meeting the night before.
Sometimes, though, Collins’ anger wells up, his timbre changing. And then he settles, the humanity showing through again.
“There are so many people I need to thank,” he said, nervous two days before seeing his mother. “So many people have helped me.”
Thing is, he said, he just wants to show people that he is “so much more than a bum.”
“I’m not an alcoholic. I’m not a drug addict. I’m just stuck,” Collins said. “I want to change the situation I’m in, but it’s hard to change when you are here. It’s hard to get up from down here.”
Sometimes for things to happen just right, a whole series of seemingly unconnected events needs to happen. People, too, need to play a part.
The trail to Collins’ reunion with his mother started with Jake, his beloved, 4-year-old, behemoth, broad-headed American Staffordshire terrier.
Collins arose one recent frigid morning and let Jake out of his tent, part of their morning ritual. When he peered out later, Jake was gone. Collins followed Jake’s paw prints in the snow down the hill until they mixed with other prints and he lost them.
“I was devastated,” he said. “I stopped every policeman and asked him where he went.”
The next day, after a night spent calling out Jake’s name over and over, he kneeled on the street and cried.
He got help from Ray Soucie, known as The Bearman because he rescues bears, who posted a photo of Jake on his Facebook page. Soucie, who had been homeless, also gave Collins a cellphone and a free month of service.
“Within four minutes I got 11 hits from people saying they were going to look for the dog,” Soucie said. “There was a whole team of us helping to find this dog.”
Jake, it turns out, had been rescued by Susan Rademacher, a long-time Manitou Springs resident and animal lover. She knew the dog because she’d seen Jake and Collins around town panhandling.
“I’d see this huge-headed, scary looking, dirty pit bull and this guy and they both just looked really scary,” Rademacher said.
While putting out her trash the morning Jake wandered off, she spotted the dog rounding the corner and heading her way. She figured the scary panhandler would follow.
“I’d never seen them separated,” she said.
She went back out and Jake ignored her as he passed by. There was no sign of the scary panhandler.
“Jake was obviously cold and pathetic,” she said. “I started talking to him, he hesitated and slowly turned around and came back. The next thing I knew, he was under a blanket in front of my fireplace.”
At a thrift store she bought Jake a sweatshirt and employees at Wag N’ Wash gave him dog food and a cleanup at no charge, Rademacher said.
Collins, she heard through the local grapevine, “had put out feelers everywhere,” she said. “He was frantically searching for Jake.”
He’d even jumped in front of the mail carrier’s truck asking for information.
“I heard about all this and that’s when my image of Randy started changing,” Rademacher said. “Maybe he wasn’t the scary guy I thought. First I had compassion for Jake, and it grew into Randy.”
When she brought Jake to Collins in front of The Mate Factor, Collins “came alive,” she said. “Jake just went nuts, bouncing over to him. They obviously are best friends.”
Jake, said Collins, “is my angel. He saves my life. He’s my world. I love the guy so much.”
When Rademacher checked in on her new friends a week later, she found Collins in tears. He told her that he wished he could find his mother. She got what detail she could from him and sought help from Cary Vogrin, a former Gazette reporter who knew how to track people down.
Vogrin met Collins just before Christmas when he was dancing near her Colorado Avenue pizza store with a sign that said: “Merry Christmas from Randy and Jake.” She knew all the regulars who panhandled the street and he wasn’t one of them, so she took his picture and posted it on her Facebook page called “The Avenue.”
Vogrin said she spent a few hours on the Internet searching for Collins’ family after Rademacher contacted her with Collins’ brother’s name. The trail led to an aunt from whom Collins was able to find his mother.
“I will help anyone get off the streets if they want my help,” Vogrin said. “Once you get to know some of these guys, it can be difficult not to worry about them, where are they sleeping, are they staying warm? Sue (Rademacher) and I had conversations like that about Randy.”
For Collins, connecting means he has come full circle: From that angry day 14 years ago when he “said things to my mother that a child should never say to a parent,” to being able to go home again.
His 42nd birthday is Tuesday, and his mom will be there.
“It’s been hard the last 14 years,” he said. “It’s been lonely. There have been quite a few times I’ve sat and wondered about my mom. Are you still alive? Where are you?”
Others have come full circle, too.
Vogrin has helped another homeless man. Rademacher has learned a lesson in life.
“At first,” she said. “I thought they were scary. It turns out that dogs are just dogs and homeless people are just people.”
Gazette reporter Matt Steiner contributed to this report.