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Portraits of the Homeless, Part II: Winter Outside, Winter Inside

Last night while I was at the Bridge Emergency Shelter, I felt a different energy/vibe/feeling/mood... whatever you want to call it. In retrospect I can pinpoint it as an overall feeling of fatigue. I blame the weather. Thus far in southwestern Colorado we've had a very mild winter: days have been anywhere from mid 40s to as high as the 60s, with the nights sitting around the 20s and 30s. No snow. No rain. The last couple days and nights brought about a very wet snow (about a foot's worth) and lower temperatures. So yes, I blame the weather for the change in mood at the Shelter last night. Almost everyone there had walked all day. While I spoke with one gentleman, I asked him if he ever rested once in a while throughout the day to try to maintain a sense of balance. He gave me a look of wonder, "And get colder?" he asked almost incredulously. I felt sheepish. He went on to explain that there's nowhere to go during the day, that you need money for any business---a warm building---to let you stay for a while. (I gathered that this meant anything from a grocery store to a coffee shop.) The library lets them stay, but too many homeless at once can be too much. I asked him if he was trying to look for work to help fill his days. There's nothing out there for him, was his reply. After speaking with a couple others, their details varied but the story about their day was the same.

The evening before last, this same man also walked all night. For reasons that he partially, roughly explained to me, he didn't stay at the Shelter that night. That was the night I decided that road conditions would have been too dangerous for me to drive to the Bridge, and he was out there. His only comment was, "Yeah, these Reeboks don't keep the wet out too good!" And he laughed. "But it's all good." ...No, it's not.

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There are times when I feel utterly powerless to help these folks. And in truth, I can only do what I can do. Only they can change their lives for the better. A couple weeks ago, I woke up in my bed in the dark of the morning with the homeless on my mind. They'll never change. That was my very first thought of the day. I laid there, under a solid roof in a warm room, and lost all hope. But then it occurred to me that it isn't just the homeless who have difficulty changing. Everyone, from the the middle class family who are constantly always one paycheck away from losing their homes to the upper class in tax brackets that most cannot imagine, has something about their lives that they don't change for the better. Diets fail. Moving on to a better job to be happier never happens. Forever holding a grudge with that one family member. We're no different from each other, no matter how much money or stature we have. The thought of humanity being so innately hopeless and undisciplined with our own actions/thoughts blew a winter storm through my inner being. Some of us can rise from the murk though, if we really want it. The power is there---we only have to plug into it.

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Last night at the Shelter I gained consent for my last two portraits of the four. A married couple. I've been conversing with them for a week or so now, trying to convince them to let me paint them. The first two people who agreed were quite willing. I asked, they responded with enthusiasm and immediately answered my two questions: what is your biggest challenge and what is your biggest dream. The couple took more work...which is fine. It's about the amount of hesitation that I anticipated at the start from everyone. But this couple really thought about it. They give me hope. And it's not just because they took their time agreeing to my project, but because they are actively facing their challenges and attempting to move forward. For example, they just secured a trailer from a kind soul. The next step: find somewhere to put it. They are beautiful examples for those who stay (and who volunteer) at the Shelter. I look forward to painting their likenesses. In fact, I look forward to painting all four portraits. There is so much complexity in each person, and the experience of being with them in the evenings has been so humbling. I am honored to spend this winter with them.