It’s a somewhat typical night at the Bridge Emergency Shelter. If there is such a thing.
Amanda Carlton is suddenly energized. Excited about the possibility of returning home to Tucson, Ariz. Back home. Back where her three children are.
Outside it’s freezing, the thermometer will drop to single digits later.
Inside, Amanda and about 10 others are warm and comfortable. In the TV room, three guys are watching “Law and Order SVU.”
In the dining room 67-year-old volunteer Lou Matis dishes up a bowl of warm chili from a crockpot to a shelter client.
The man says thanks but doesn’t offer a smile.
Amanda has been “stranded” in Cortez for more than a month. She doesn’t need much money but it’s a lot since she’s starting from zero.
She shifts her gaze as she details her struggles with her boyfriend. The speed bump with him has now left her alone and homeless in Cortez.
“I’m just trying to get back home.” Home is where Ivan, 12, Skye, 8, and 6-year-old Gabriel live.
As the night drifts on, Amanda’s excitement drains. She asks to borrow a cell phone from staff member Cole McKinney.
“Is it a local call?” He asks.
She frowns sadly and nods her head no. Cole hands her his phone anyway.
The phone call doesn’t bring good news and Amanda retreats to the outside for a cigarette as tears start to form.
Another night, another week, maybe more at the shelter for the 30-year-old stranded mother of three.
She’s extremely complimentary when she talks about the shelter.
“It’s a lifesaver, it really is,” she says returning to the warmth of the shelter. “It’s really like a family. Everyone is really nice, respectful.”
She again talks about the circumstances that left her without a home. Then she shrugs looking around the shelter.
“I’m not freezing. It’s nice.”
It’s been two nights since 47-year-old Mary Rose Shay froze to death in the park. Amanda didn’t know Shay but the tragedy rippled through the shelter, getting everyone’s attention.
All Amanda needs is $140 for a bus ticket to Tucson. Everyday, she makes the one-mile trip to the Cortez Day Labor center and hopes that a job will materialize.
There have been no jobs. Even if she gets the ticket money, the closest bus stations are in Grand Junction or Gallup, N.M. Another hurdle in her quest to return home.
The loud ringer of the client door alerts everyone that another person is seeking shelter for the night. Shelter from the single digit temperatures, a bountiful dinner, a hot shower and a bed with cozy blankets and a pillow.
Nothing extravagant, but shelter from the winter night.
The man who enters fits the image that many in the community have of clients at the shelter.
He’s intoxicated. Every client must stop at the office for “in-take” requirements.
A small hand-held breath tester determines his alcohol level. He’s checked for weapons and his bag and coat are stored. Then he’s escorted to the Alcohol Recovery Unit, or ARU.
Amanda pours herself a glass of lemonade in the dining room and takes a seat on a couch in the TV room, resigned that Cortez and the shelter will be her home for a little longer.
The rest of “Law and Order” and it’s off to bed.
DIVIDING THE SHELTER
The shelter is quiet and free of any chaos. It’s relaxing for the clients. TV, a bowl of chili, a cupcake, a book to read or just talking to people who have arrived at the shelter due to similar circumstances.
This year, a major change was made to minimize chaos, problems and make it safer.
The shelter now has a “wet side” for the intoxicated clients and a “dry side” for clients who have not consumed alcohol.
“Creating the dry side and wet side of the house meant much more sanity and less chaos in the shelter,” Executive Director Sara Wakefield says.
Two ARU rooms with beds and mats on the floor are reserved for intoxicated men. There’s one female room at the shelter, which is the only room that combines “wet” and “dry” clients. Through the season (mid-October through mid-April, 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. nightly) there will be far less females at the shelter than men.
Everyone is tested for alcohol and the results will determine if a client will be on the wet side or dry side.
Intoxicated clients are not allowed in the dining room or TV room. They must stay in the recovery rooms. Food is shuttled to them by staff or volunteers.
Wakefield said there were occasional problems before with intoxicated and sober clients mingling in the same areas.
“Some nights it seemed like a big party, other nights it was more of a nightmare.
“Separating the clients has been a lot of work to create the culture change. Clients were used to having it the old way, where they could watch TV and manipulate staff time and energy,” Wakefield adds.
For shelter manager Donna Boyd, who started at the shelter last February, it’s been a welcome change.
“I think it’s made a huge difference in the atmosphere. It’s quieter, less trouble,” she says.
There are a total of six sleeping rooms at the shelter: Two for ARU, one for women, one large room for men (8-10 beds and mats) and two quiet rooms for men (4-5 beds).
As the door ringer sounds, McKinney again motors down the hall and welcomes another man in need of shelter. He will be directed to the ARU and given a bowl of chili to eat in the room.
The shelter is the old Cortez jail, and Wakefield says that many clients were residents of the building for that reason in the past.
“We tried to make it feel less like a jail and more like a home,” she says.
Amanda and three others on the dry side watch the final minutes of “Law and Order” in a quiet, relaxed setting.
The ringer sounds again. It’s cold outside and the shelter is filling up.
For these men and women, the shelter will be home tonight.
A UNIQUE PERSPECTIVE
David Mattson grabs a broom and does a quick sweep up of the dining room. Everyone at the shelter has chores but David just sees that the room needs cleaning.
His long gray beard is a work many years in the growing. His brilliant blue eyes are clear and responsive. He’s reluctant at first to talk and doesn’t care to be photographed.
He looks people square in the eyes when he talks, choosing his words warily and organizing his thoughts meticulously. David reveals details about his life and the circumstances that brought him to this shelter and other shelters.
“Seems like my whole life, every decision I make turns the wrong way,” he says.
His honesty is blunt. His tone is open but gruff and gritty. He confesses that he feels the eyes on him as he enters the library or recreation center during the day.
“I see people who look down their noses at me. But I guess I understand that to a certain degree,” he says.
He’s comfortable in the shelter.
“If it wasn’t for shelters, I don’t know where I’d be,” the 61-year-old Wisconsin native says.
David knows what it’s like to be on both the wet side and the dry side of a shelter. He modestly confesses that he had a problem with alcohol in the past.
“It had a hold of me,” he says. “I gave up drinking years and years ago.”
There’s a touch of pride in his voice now.
As a man without a home, he knows most of the men and women who come to the shelter and are directed to the wet side.
“On a personal basis, I virtually know no one who doesn’t drink in this town. And it hurts me,” he says.
David knew Mary Rose Shay, but not well. Her death was hard on the shelter.
“The whole mood of the shelter was down. It’s normally a happy place.”
Shelter is home
With the alcohol abuse problem in Cortez, David understands how tragedies like Shay and Michael “Tag” Garner, who died in the park in January of 2011, can happen.
As a client who stays on the dry side, David says the shelter is a lifeline for everyone — whether they drink or not.
David takes a breath and nods. “If it wasn’t for places like this, I’d probably end up like Mary.”
He admits that the shelter is more pleasant since they divided it into two separate sides.
“They’ve got better control over the people who come in who are drunk,” he says. “I can look at it both ways because I used to drink. I wouldn’t want to be stuck down there (in the ARU). But it’s their choice (to drink).”
David flashes the only grin of the conversation when asked how he ended up in Cortez.
“Believe it or not, a job brought me here.
“The job was good for a while,” he says, then his voice trails off and the grin is gone.
“Well, as my luck goes …” David says, explaining what happened. The man who brought him to Cortez from Pueblo got into an argument with the boss and that was that.
“So there went my job.”
David says his hips and lower back give him trouble so he can’t find work. He receives Social Security disability but he says it’s not enough to rent a place.
Spring and summer are still months away but David isn’t sure where he will live then.
“Last year, I lucked out and stayed with friends.”
His honesty and self-accountability are again revealed.
“There was constant arguing, fighting and bickering,” he says, then pauses. “And me messing up — that caused the end of that.
“This summer, I think I’m out of options. I guess I really will find out what it’s like to live on the streets of Cortez,” he says.
He admits that the streets have been his home in the past in other cities.
This season, the shelter has been averaging between 20-25 individuals a night. Boyd estimates that three-fourths of those are regulars. The client list for the season is around 120, she says.
“We get all kinds of people here. Some are regulars, others are in until they get money or their affairs in order, then they are gone, back home, back to family or whatever,” she says.
Every night, the ARU will be filled with intoxicated men. The dry side will be quiet and filled with more hope than the wet side.
Hope is what Amanda Carlton hangs onto. The shelter has been a lifesaver but it’s not home.
Now, 14 days into the new year and approaching two months stranded in Cortez, Amanda hopes that somewhere she will get the necessary $140 and a trip to the nearest bus station. Then back home to Tucson.
Until then, she knows that she has a place to sleep, a place to eat and a warm safe place to get her through the winter nights.
It’s not home but it’s the best she can do right now.
Pretty much just like everyone else who finds shelter in the old jail.