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First-person account: The attempts to help one Colorado Springs homeless man change his ways

By: Cary Vogrin, The Gazette
September 2, 2014 Updated: September 2, 2014 at 12:45 pm
Caption +
Calvin Muzzy stands in the entrance of his makeshift camp under the bridge behind Taco Bell at 31st and Colorado Avenue. A Marine Corps veteran, he hopes to receive money from Veterans Affairs to help him find a home. He became homeless approximately 8 years ago when a DUI caused him to lose his job detailing cars. Photo by Julia Moss, The Gazette

Standing in the chilly dark, under the bridge at 31st Street and West Colorado Avenue that he calls home, Calvin Muzzy described his hopes for the future: a warm, bright apartment he'll share with his best friend, Pete Hill. - There will be no more wicked cold nights huddled near Fountain Creek. No more unprovoked beatings from other homeless, deranged by booze or drugs, that send him to the hospital. No more standing for hours on street corners in snow or rain or under a blazing sun, holding a cardboard sign begging for cash. - In Calvin's vision, he and Pete will be safe and happy. He'll have a job - maybe at a tire shop. Pete will get medical care to stop his seizures. Calvin's even planning a celebratory barbecue for the police officers who have helped them. - "We're going to have a housewarming party and they are definitely invited," Calvin said. "Come on over and have a hamburger, hotdogs, brats. You're invited too, Cary."

I made the guest list because, like a few dedicated cops, I've tried for months to help Calvin and Pete get off the streets. I reached out to them because of the answer they gave to a big question many homeless people face: Are they ready and willing to change?

"Yes. We're getting too old," Calvin told me. "We're both 47."

But there's a bigger question facing Calvin and Pete and others like them:

"Can you quit drinking?" I've often asked Calvin.

Substance abuse is a major reason many end up on the streets and remain chronically homeless. When I ask about getting sober, Calvin always has the same response.

"That's easy," he says. "I can do that. So can Pete."

Now - months after befriending him, gaining his trust and reconnecting him with a son he hasn't seen in 25 years - the police and I had gotten Calvin close to taking the next step. We told him about a new program for the chronically homeless that opened in Bent County and another local housing program for veterans.

Would Calvin get a job or follow through on trying to get in either program? Or would I find him, once again, slurring his words or sipping from a can of Evil Eye?

I'd get my answer soon enough.


WHEN THE JOURNEY BEGAN: Reaching out to gentle figure

For me, the journey with Calvin began last fall when I noticed a skinny man with a scraggly beard standing at an entrance to the shopping center where I own a business, holding a cardboard sign that read: "Homeless Veteran."

He was different from a lot of the street people who come by the center. Some are loud and aggressive, scaring customers and tourists with their demands for change or cigarettes.

Not this guy. He simply stood, held his sign and offered a meek smile when I greeted him.

At first, our interactions consisted of simple "hellos" in the mornings. Gradually, I came to learn the details about his life.

He was raised in Idaho and enlisted in the Marines two weeks after high school graduation. "June 11, 1985, I reported to MCRD, San Diego, California," he later told me, referring to the recruit depot. He also married his high school sweetheart, adding, "Now, that date I don't remember."

He went to Wyoming Technical Institute to be a diesel mechanic, and had two sons who are now adults. At one time, he had his place in Colorado Springs and worked detailing cars, but it all slipped away after a DUI.

When I met Calvin, he and Pete had been on the west side a few weeks and were sleeping outside near a church off 30th Street. Pete suffered frequent seizures and mostly stayed behind to rest, relying on Calvin to find money and food.

Over the next weeks, Calvin became a regular at the entrance to the Red Rocks shopping center. From my store, I'd watch him work his spot for hours at a stretch.

Calvin was sober almost every time we talked. He was kind, polite and upbeat, always greeting me with a cheery, "Hi Cary!" or a friendly wave.

He was hard not to like. And I wasn't the only one who thought so. The police were getting to know Calvin as well - not because he was breaking the law, but because he was becoming a constant presence on The Avenue.

"He's a helluva nice guy," said Colorado Springs police officer Bobby Jeffords, one of two officers assigned to a special team that focuses on The Avenue - West Colorado Avenue from 21st Street to the Manitou Springs border. "But he's got a problem staying away from alcohol."


A history of alcohol abuse

I wanted to help Calvin. But I wanted to make sure he was telling me the truth.

To confirm his stories, I checked public records databases and even put a call into the registrar's office at the college he said he attended. Turned out he was being honest. Most important to me, he wasn't lying when he said he didn't have a stack of felony convictions.

Calvin started telling me about his kids, whom he hadn't seen since they were tiny. He didn't know where they lived, so in early November, I offered to try to find them, hoping it would motivate him to make a change.

It didn't take long to locate his youngest, living in the Midwest. I showed Calvin a photo of his son, his daughter-in-law and his two grandsons. His face lit up.

His son initially had a different reaction. He was shocked because the family assumed Calvin was dead. He was an infant when Calvin left, and he and his older brother weren't interested in a reunion.

But the son's wife, Alisha Muzzy, was interested. Soon, we were in regular contact. Over the course of a month, Alisha's husband slowly changed his mind about being in touch.

"He felt he couldn't move on without talking with his dad," Alisha said of her husband's change of heart.

I wrote down Alisha's email and gave it to Calvin.

"This is going to be awesome!" he told me.

I set up my laptop in my store lobby on a frigid winter day and invited Calvin to start typing.

A short email exchange led to calls, the first of which occurred Dec. 21. Calvin and his son talked for at least a half-hour. Alisha also talked to him and had plenty of questions for her absent father-in-law.

"I asked him how come he didn't reach out," she recalled. "He said alcohol consumed his life and other than that he didn't know why he did it."

On Christmas Eve, Calvin was in front of my store looking for me. A woman in a nearby neighborhood was letting Calvin and Pete sleep in her basement, and since he was now living indoors, I had a pizza for him to bake as a holiday gift, but I was shocked to see he had something for me: He handed me a green and red gift box and a card. Inside was candy and some Justin Bieber body lotion and cologne.

On Christmas, Calvin called his family again, and Alisha wrote me about the conversation:

"I asked if he was having a good Christmas; he said excellent 'cuz he was inside where it is warm with food and he is talking with us. He goes, 'it's the best Christmas I've had in years.' "


PROVING IT: Pressure from all sides

The new year saw Calvin keeping his vigil on the corner in the bitter cold with his cardboard sign. I figured if he was going to fly a sign, it might as well be mine, so I offered to pay him to hold an advertising shaker board for me on occasion. He gladly took the jobs. It proved to me he could work.

I hoped that his new connection with family would give him added motivation to change his life and get sober, and the police also intensified their conversations, urging him to make plans for the future.

Near my store, two teams of police - the Westside Enforcement and Service Team (WEST) and the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) - work with the homeless, trying to get them off the streets. The reasons are economic as well as humanitarian. Chronic homelessness can be costly - $58,000 a year, according to one study, said Dan McCormack, one of four HOT officers. That figure includes trips to the emergency room, hospitalizations and emergency responses by police, fire and ambulance crews.

So, in what resembled an intervention, five of us - myself, WEST Officers Jeffords and Mark Sandoval, and HOT officers McCormack and Tim Kippel - surrounded Calvin in my store and strongly encouraged him to think about housing programs.

It was a blunt conversation about the shortened life expectancy of the average homeless person. We offered him options, including a new long-term program for the chronically homeless at Fort Lyon in Bent County.

But Calvin was noncommittal. He gave what would become his standard response: "I'm working on it."

Around that time, Calvin showed up with his cardboard sign wearing a medical boot. He had fractured the bones in his feet but didn't remember how. He just woke up and noticed he was injured, he told me. I had an inkling of what caused it: Evil Eye - a cheap, high-octane malt liquor that is a best-seller on West Colorado Avenue.

"If things keep going the way they are, I don't think they're going to be around too awful long," McCormack warned.


Back on the streets

A short time later, Calvin and Pete were back on the streets, living under a bridge near my store. Pete was easy to recognize, walking with a cane adorned with a small, dirty American flag. They didn't even have a sleeping bag. I wondered how they would make it through the rest of the winter. Overnight temperatures were dipping into the teens.

Sandoval and Jeffords were concerned, too. They often worried at night from the comfort of their own homes.

"The snow's coming down, the wind's blowing and I'm thinking: 'Here I am wandering around in my BVDs," Jeffords said. "I know that they are under a bridge right now; that they are maybe just trying not to die, trying to just make it through the night."

As winter morphed into spring, the officers began putting more pressure on Calvin and Pete to get out from under the bridge.

"I'm working on it," Calvin said, reciting his mantra. "You don't think I want to live under here, do you?"

Sandoval's response: "I think you do. I think it's comfortable for you. I think you're OK with being here."

Sandoval admits being frustrated and disappointed by what he says is Calvin's lack of motivation and ability to prioritize.

"Lately it's been more difficult to want to interact with him: 'What kind of progress are you making? What's your next step?' And I guess I get discouraged when I hear the story: 'Well I lost all my paperwork,'" Sandoval said.

Then there's the sight of their camp:

"One of the most disheartening things is going down to check on them and to see that all around them are empty malt liquor cans," Sandoval said.

Jeffords, a career cop closing in on retirement, said Calvin and Pete and other homeless think differently from most.

"For any of us, living under a bridge would be beyond rock bottom," Jeffords said. "But I really think there's a lower area - there's farther to drop for them."


CHANCE FOR CHANGE: Good Samaritans frustrated

Sandoval believes Calvin is capable of rebuilding his life, but it will require work.

"In order for Calvin to be successful, he needs to be in a program where he can deal with his alcohol addiction," Sandoval said. "If he can deal with that, and with the training that he has, he could get some kind of job - somewhere to start him back."

In March, Calvin did make an attempt at income. He tried to claim disability and collect a veteran's pension. But his claim was denied a few weeks later.

Again I urged Calvin to consider the homeless program at Fort Lyon, where he could get housing, get sober, get healthy and take classes at the nearby junior college. Upon graduation from the program, he'd get housing and help with a job.

"In two years or less, your life could be turned around," I told him.

Pete could apply, too. I printed out information about the program. He assured me he would read it and discuss it with Pete.

But after his pension was denied, Calvin went back to his routine. The weather warmed up, a woman moved in under the bridge and they soon became a couple. While he still staked out the shopping center entrance, we didn't talk quite as much.


Pete's health deteriorates

One day in early June, I went under the bridge to check on Pete. He had suffered at least three seizures overnight and was sleeping.

The police, too, were becoming increasingly worried about Pete's health; he was appearing more and more frail, and they decided maybe it was best to focus efforts on him. I agreed.

A whirlwind of paperwork and appointments began, starting with a ride to the Department of Motor Vehicles in the back of a patrol car to get Pete an ID, which would be necessary for attempts at programs or housing. We used my store as his address.

Then there was a trip to the homeless medical clinic, where I sat with Pete for a few hours while he waited to see the dentist and get two teeth pulled because of an infection and severe periodontal disease.

While in the waiting room, I helped him fill out his paperwork, and he told me about his past. He was a Widefield High grad and said he attended Pikes Peak Community College with the intention of studying criminal justice.

Over the years, he worked at Wal-Mart, Family Dollar, Dollar Tree and in construction. His parents died in 2005, and he became homeless a year later.

Pete told me his life began to bottom out when his daughter moved with her mother to Texas: "I got depressed, angry. I was drinking a lot, too. I'm not going to lie."

He talked a lot about his daughter. She was now 14, and he recalled a conversation with her on Christmas when a family member gave him her phone number.

"I would love to get a picture of her because I haven't seen her in years," he said.


LEFT WITH NOTHING: Health problems, attacked

Not long after, Jeffords dropped Pete off one morning at the Resource Advocate Program at the Springs Rescue Mission.

Because he now had an ID - which Sandoval kept in the patrol car along with the rest of Pete's paperwork so it wouldn't get lost - Pete was going to fill out paperwork for disability. But he fell during another seizure and was taken to Memorial Hospital, where he received five staples in his head. It wouldn't be his last trip to the ER.

Calvin's summer, meanwhile, took a dangerous turn when a homeless couple walking along West Colorado Avenue attacked him, claiming he wasn't really a veteran. He was pulled to the ground, kicked and left with spit in his hair.

A day later, flash flooding from torrential rains washed away Pete and Calvin's camp - sleeping bags, clothes, pillows. Once again they were left with nothing.

Things continued to deteriorate. Less than a week after Calvin's beating and the flood, another homeless man came under the bridge in the middle of the night and attacked Calvin in a dispute about his girlfriend. Calvin got a black eye, bruises on his chest and a trip to the hospital.

Jeffords thought maybe the beatings would be the clincher for Calvin.

"I thought, if this doesn't give him the push to get out from under the bridge, I'm not sure what it's gonna take," Jeffords said.


OPTIONS: Hope for change emerges

In fact, a few days later, Calvin followed through with an appointment to Rocky Mountain Human Services (RMHS), which offers a housing program specifically for homeless veterans. Caseworker J.T. Teisher laid out Calvin's options:

- Find work and apply for a program called Homes for All Veterans. If approved, Calvin eventually would be required to have income to help pay for his apartment.

- Apply for HUD VASH - a Veterans Affairs-sponsored housing program that provides a housing voucher for veterans. "For a guy like Calvin," Teisher said, "it would be like winning the lottery."

- Apply to the long-term homeless program at Fort Lyon.

"I think it would be a good option," Teisher said of Fort Lyon. "It's not just a rehab place. It's not just two years of AA meetings, if that's what you're afraid of."

Calvin agreed to return to RMHS the following Monday for an employment seminar.

"I haven't had a job in eight, almost nine years," he said.

A few days later, Teisher went under the bridge and woke Calvin up at 8:15 a.m. to get him to the job workshop.

"Today he was a lot more open to Fort Lyon," Teisher told me afterward. "But I can't force him to go anywhere."

Calvin was still in denial about his addiction.

"He says he doesn't have a drinking problem," Teisher said. "He said he could quit any time."

Instead, it was as obvious to Teisher as it was to me and the police: "All his problems are compounded by the fact he's either drunk or hungover," he said.


HOPE: What will he choose?

I was buoyed by news Calvin was thinking about Fort Lyon. But I had to wonder - what if he doesn't commit to something? When do I give up?

The only answer Calvin gives anyone is "I'm working on it." My fear is that he'll end up as McCormack predicts.

My experiences with Calvin and Pete these past months have shown me just how hard it is for some to abandon a lifestyle that has left them on the brink of death.

McCormack, who has worked with Calvin and Pete the longest, put it this way:

"The biggest challenge is that they have to be the one that wants to change," he said. "We've all wanted it more than they wanted it. Everyone else has worked harder than they have."

Jeffords, the veteran cop, said it's time for Calvin to act.

"It's nice to see him making some progress, but he's great at taking two small steps forward and two giant ones back," Jeffords said. "He's been thinking about it a lot. He needs to do something about it."

Jeffords' partner, Sandoval, voiced deep frustration with Calvin.

"I'm not going to mince words," Sandoval told Calvin outside my store on Aug. 1. "You guys have been getting a free ride down there. We've tried to help you. We've been dealing with this since January. You guys should be inside your own place by now."

He told Calvin it was time either to accept the help they were being offered or . . .

"Then it's time to just move on and help the next person," Sandoval said.

Alisha, Calvin's daughter-in-law, also has tried using brutal honesty to persuade him to change.

"I said: 'You really need to try to turn your life around so you can have a relationship with your son and your grandkids," she said. "I'm not going to come out and see you unless you try to better yourself.' His reaction? 'I'm working on it, I'm doing my best.' "

She's especially upset because Calvin's reluctance to act hurts her husband.

But then, when everyone was ready to write Calvin off, he did something great: He called his son on his birthday on July 22. Alisha Muzzy had told me she doubted Calvin even knew his son's date of birth.

It's that side of Calvin, his kindness, that makes all of this so frustrating for everyone.

Still, Alisha Muzzy has a faint hope for a happy ending.

"I really, really do hope at some point down the road that they can have some sort of father-son relationship - that Calvin can get his stuff together and possibly be a father and a grandfather for once in his life."

And maybe host a barbecue at his new apartment.


Postscript: On Aug. 5, Pete was taken to Memorial Hospital via ambulance after complaining to Jeffords and Sandoval that he was having trouble breathing. He was admitted for 12 days for pneumonia. On Aug. 7, three HOT officers, along with two El Paso County sheriff's deputies, went under the bridge and told Calvin the group had two days to move out. Calvin and his girlfriend moved to a new spot on Fountain Creek. Pete was released from the hospital Aug. 17 and rejoined Calvin at the new camp. Sandoval submitted additional paperwork for Pete's disability application; Calvin, meanwhile, applied for a housing voucher through the HUD-VASH program and made it to all his appointments. Five days ago, he brought a manila envelope to my store for safekeeping. In it was a housing voucher for an apartment.

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