Homeless in Alamosa — one man’s story
ALAMOSA — Vernon Martinez wakes up early every morning. It’s not because he’s had enough sleep, or his alarm went off. It’s not even his choice when he wakes up. The 60-year-old native of Monte Vista wakes up early because it’s simply too cold to sleep.
“It’s been a harsh winter,” he says. The exhaustion from surviving nights where the temperature has plunged below zero and the days spent walking around to stay warm can be heard in his voice.
Martinez is homeless. Aside from nights when he slept on people’s couches and a stint when he rented a place for several months but moved out after falling behind on rent, Martinez has been homeless for more than three years.
By choice, he leads a solitary life, away from others, away from the encampment where “there’s too much drama” and “people steal from each other sometimes,” he says.
A single theft can rob a person of all they own, as Martinez learned when someone stole his backpack, including his cell phone — a lifeline to services needed, his medication, his Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) card and his reading glasses.
Describing himself as “a loner” who doesn’t “really have any friends” but has “associates,” Martinez camps in an undisclosed location — for obvious reasons — that keeps him out of the way of others and away from those who would not be good to have in his life.
Many of his days are spent doing what is necessary to get and maintain the support required to stay alive and functioning. Twelve years ago, he got seriously injured working on a roof. The accident led to an operation and “a plate” in his back that causes numbness and tingling in his hands and feet and “makes it hard to stand or walk for periods of time.”
With no transportation aside from a bicycle “that’s flat” right now, Martinez says, “I walk everywhere I go. It takes me about two hours to walk to Social Security,” where he gets his monthly check of $214, the sole income he has aside from food stamps. “But I make it. I get an early start. It’s kind of hard but I’m pretty independent.”
He also walks to Walmart once a month to buy a phone card, his only contact with much of the world. Every two weeks, he walks to SLV Behavioral Health where he sees a mental health professional who is treating him for PTSD, the result of events in his past.
And on those days when there are no specific places he needs to be, sometimes he’ll go to the library, sometimes to Loaf ‘n Jug for a little while and sometimes he just “walks the streets” because, right now, it’s best to keep moving, to keep mobile and to stay warm.
He’s had a few close calls. One night, he almost passed out walking over the bridge and, luckily, the police called an ambulance. More recently, “I went to the hospital a few weeks ago. I had hypothermia. They warmed me up and sent me on my way.
“There have been some real blessings,” he says of the support and services he has received.
But the biggest obstacle in Martinez’s life — and the one he needs to overcome if, in his words, he’s “going to survive” — is finding a place to live. Those obstacles are significant, first because there are simply no places available with hundreds of people in line and, second, because of his past.
Martinez has held different jobs, including getting his commercial driver’s license and driving a truck. He also has a family.
“I’ve got kids. They’re grown and they turned out OK. They’ve got their own lives,” he says.
But much of his adult life has been spent in and out of prison. He was last released from prison more than three years ago, has completed parole and has had no interactions with the police since getting out. But that criminal background leads to his application for housing being denied and bars him from staying in the shelter.
“I was a drinker — that was my poison — and I got violent when I drank a lot," he says. "It’s an extensive background and I’m not proud of it. But I’m grateful to God for being in prison because He saved my liver. And now I like waking up not hung over and not wondering what I did the night before.”
He doesn’t blame his behavior on anyone but himself, but it’s a behavior he still can’t completely explain.
“My parents taught me right from wrong," he says. "My dad would go outside with me and throw the ball around. They didn’t speak English, but they were great parents.
“There were a lot of people who came from the same background and grew up in the same circumstances I did — in a pretty violent part of town with a lot of drugs and alcohol around. But they didn’t turn out like I did,” he says.
In prison, Martinez took a lot of classes — welding, meat cutting, auto mechanics — but also anger management, mental health issues and Bible study. He also “got that jailhouse religion” that led to his relationship with God.
“It’s taken me a long time to learn this and gain some kind of knowledge and wisdom about why I was always getting in trouble. And now I’m trying to view the world through different eyes. My own eyes but different eyes. I’m trying to do it differently than I always did,” he says.
Martinez says he has filled out applications and told his story numerous times, “it seems like every time I go in, that’s just part of the metric.”
Yet, despite, he says, “seeing others who have been kicked out of housing but then get put back in”, he has hit nothing but brick walls, leaving him to believe he will have to get out of homelessness on his own.
“I’ve raised my voice a few times. It’s not anger. It’s frustration. But people will tell you I’ve done that,” he says.
He’s hoping that, in February, when he gets his “old age pension,” he’ll be able to save up for six months or so, enough to rent an apartment and, hopefully, give back to others and warn people to not do what he’s done.
Until then, he’s holding on and staying warm as best as he can.
“I think about jumping into traffic every once in a while," he says. "Not often but I think about it. But I’ve got to keep my faith in God and remember it’s His way on His time and not mine. He may not give me what I want, but He’ll give me what I need and I’m hoping that’s the way it’ll kinda go this time.”