One paycheck away: Homelessness is a series of trapdoors of addiction, low wages, laws and more


Jonathan Townshend Garner spent nine sleepless nights in 2017 covered in snow staring up at the bottom of a frozen overpass in Aurora. Just a few short months before, the 35-year-old  was planning to purchase a condo with his girlfriend. 

He never expected that a breakup would send him down a series of increasingly difficult trapdoors — without housing or insurance, each door became harder to climb through. Because of those cold nights in 2017, Garner even lost his legs.

What led Garner to homelessness is not unique. As homeless rates continue to climb in this country for people in many different situations, the causes can range from one lost paycheck to addiction or mental health issues with no money to support treatment.

In Garner’s case, he was in a stable housing situation that was reliant on two incomes. The loss of a girlfriend meant the loss of a second, necessary paycheck.

“I'm all of a sudden in a situation where I've lost half my income in regards to what's going towards payments,” Garner said. 

Homelessness affects many types of people. It also comes in all forms from living on the streets to couch surfing or sleeping in a car. Common among all situations that have forced someone into homelessness is the world around them not being designed to help.

According to HUD fair market rent data, rent for a studio apartment in the metro area has increased by more than $300 per month since 2019, but minimum wages have only increased by about $2.50 an hour — increasing the percent of wages needed to be put towards housing from 54 to almost 60%.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition — a nonprofit that aims to end the affordable housing crisis through policy and data research — deems housing costing more than 30% of wages spent on rent and utilities as unaffordable, placing workers at risk for homelessness.

This lack of affordable housing acts doubly as a factor for becoming homeless and a barrier from escaping it.

Unable to deal with the breakup and loss of income, Garner said it triggered a dormant alcohol addiction.

“As soon as she left, I started drinking again too, which was probably one of the worst decisions that I made,” he said. “And I'm a hell of a drinker. It took me no time before I was drinking before work every day.”

His addiction became another trapdoor. He was evicted from his home as his costly addiction grew, losing his job within a few months, and he continued falling until he landed on the streets.

In 2017, he found himself buried by snowdrifts, numbed to the elements by frostbite and an empty bottle. 

Over the next three and a half months, he was in an ICU burn unit, where his legs were amputated for frostbite. What happened to land him there remains a blur, with Garner saying he was just lost in a blizzard of snow and substance abuse. 

Garner had not looked for a shelter because he felt he deserved what he was experiencing on the street, his addiction giving him too much bluster to ask for help.

“And so when things have gotten so bad for me, I was like, ‘I guess that's where you go when you're at this place,’” Garner said. 

But from Aurora to Lakewood, many who look for shelter have a hard time finding it — especially in winter.

The stick and carrot of winter shelter

“Police show up to tell you to leave, but don’t have an answer as to where we can go,” said Marshall Moody, who experienced homelessness in Lakewood over the summer. 

He wasn’t hunting for winter shelter, but acknowledging how there were no shelter options in Lakewood, and describing how he felt harassed by police telling him to move along.

In Aurora, one of the only overnight shelter spaces is the Comitis Crisis Center.

“Comitis has, what, 30 beds? I’m sure there’s easily 200 homeless people in Aurora. Easily,” said Jason, 40, who declined to give his last name, pointing out the lack of shelter options. 

Jason has been homeless since 2019, falling on hard times after breaking his back and not having the ability to afford medical care.

Anna Miller, director of business development and public relations at Mile High Behavioral Healthcare — which Comitis Crisis Center falls under — has said before that the center has an outreach team that goes out every day working with the city and police department to inform people on the streets about available resources. The organization was supportive of Aurora’s camping ban passed last summer.

But like the ban, these opinions are from the summer.

During the winter, many more people experiencing homelessness look for indoor shelter due to low temperatures, snow, rain and wind-chills causing regular, local shelters to fill up fast. 

This is where short-term emergency weather shelters come in.

For much of the metro area, the “extreme weather” needed to open these emergency shelters — which vary from the Severe Weather Shelter Network across Jefferson County that uses a network of churches, to opening some day-only centers for overnight stays — requires the temperature to be freezing or below with moisture, and 20 degrees or below without moisture.

In Denver, the required cutoff is 10 degrees or six inches of snow — though, according to Sabrina Allie, the communications and engagement director for the Department of Housing Stability — or HOST — in Denver, the city council has asked the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, which created the cutoff, to revisit these regulations.

The issue is that cold-weather injuries like frostbite and hypothermia can set in as high as 45 degrees depending on wind and moisture. This is according to doctors from Denver Health and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, which sent a joint letter to HOST and DDPHE asking the city to raise their cutoff.

“Hypothermia and frostbite may develop in minutes and often occur in the setting of risk factors for heat loss or decreased heat production including pre-existing medical conditions, exhaustion, dehydration, substance use and malnutrition, all of which are common among people experiencing homelessness,” doctors said in the letter.

Some see winter shelter as a carrot-and-stick situation though, requiring the cutoff to not be too comfortable for those experiencing homelessness.

“We do not want to enable, we want to empower,” said Lynn Ann Huizingh, executive director of development at Jefferson County’s Severe Weather Shelter Network. “We do the best we can to provide some good relational development, but we also want to encourage people to pursue answers that would lead them off the street, and if they get too comfortable, they just don’t have any reason to try and pursue anything else.”

However, at all times, the goal is to keep people from freezing to death, Huizingh added.

Aurora’s policy, according to Emma Knight, manager of homelessness for the city's Division of Housing and Community Services, is to open emergency cold-weather shelters at 32 degrees during wet weather, and 20 degrees otherwise.

In Garner’s case, freezing to death almost became a reality. Instead, he left the hospital as a double amputee — disabled, homeless, and penniless.

“And I wish I could have said that that was my rock bottom as well. But it wasn't,” Garner said. 

Police interactions and laws against homelessness

Over the next nine months, Garner continued drinking and using drugs while trying to condition himself to his surroundings. 

“There isn't a rock bottom, there isn't some stable ground that you hit. It is a series of trapdoors that gets progressively lower on to infinity,” Garner said.

Some of these trapdoors take the shape of police interactions and the possibility of jail time due to criminalization of homelessness. In the summer of 2022, Aurora passed a camping ban, following in the footsteps of Denver, which passed a similar measure a decade ago. 

“Can’t camp, but you have only one shelter in the city of Aurora,” Jason said, referring to the Comitis Crisis Center. “The camping ban doesn’t mean we can’t be outside — that’s really the main point — the camping ban means we can’t be safe outside.”

Terese Howard, homeless advocate and founder of Housekeys Action Network Denver, said these bans just push people around, possibly into more dangerous and secluded areas if they don’t just move a block away from where they were before. 

Police harassment often comes out of these laws as well, Howard said. Officers will tell people experiencing homelessness to “move along” without offering alternatives, according to Howard. 

Denver’s camping ban specifies “shelter” to include “blankets, or any form of cover or protection from the elements other than clothing.”

“There’s this illusion that you need this stick to connect people to services,” Howard said. “That's a lie, it doesn't work. You can just look back at the last 10 years of Denver to see the reality of that lie. It’s meant, first and foremost, to push people out of sight, out of mind.”

According to one national study from 2013, criminalization can create a cycle of incarceration that perpetuates itself.

Noting a loop of jail time and homelessness, the report says: “Incarceration has been noted to increase the risk of homelessness” as it can weaken community ties, limit employment opportunities and make it more difficult to get public housing.

“This bidirectional association between homelessness and incarceration may result in a certain amount of cycling between public psychiatric hospitals, jails and prisons, and homeless shelters or the street,” the report concludes.

A homeless count across the metro area

Nationwide, at the start of every year, a count is taken to try and estimate the unsheltered homeless population.

At the same time, a count is made of people who have stayed in a participating shelter at some point across the country. These counts are run by HUD through volunteering shelters and local governments.

In the 2022 point-in-time count across Jefferson, Broomfield, Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas and Denver counties, there were nearly 2,000 people living unsheltered, and just over 3,000 in emergency shelters. 

According to the data, most of the homeless population is in Denver. 

HUD’s definition of homelessness includes those who are in imminent risk of losing their housing. However, the annual report does not include that data or consider people who are couch surfing, or temporarily living at a friend or family member’s home.

Jason had been working, but with a broken back, he could no longer work or afford needed medical care. 

Like Garner, Jason requires a wheelchair to get around, which creates another level of difficulties for those experiencing homelessness.

The cost of a disability

One day in the spring of 2018, Garner’s wheelchair got caught in some weeds in a field. He spent hours there, yelling for help, until a couple happened upon him.

The couple befriended Garner, brought him some basic necessities, and got him into a detox facility. After a few stints, Garner has now been sober for more than four years.

“But the patience that these strangers showed me was something that was unbelievable to me,” Garner said. “I will never forget before they took me in the third time telling them: ‘Well, what if I just do this again? You know, what if I, what if you take me to this detox, you come pick me up, and I just start drinking again?'"

Garner said the couple told him they would keep trying. Services like detox are difficult to use for people with addictions and mental health issues, as they often have no support system to encourage them to go, as well as there often being little state support.

In 2019, a study showed that about 20% of all Americans were affected by mental illness in the past year. According to The National Coalition for Homelessness the general effects of various mental illnesses “disrupt people’s ability to carry out essential aspects of daily life,” as well as make social bonds.

“This often results in pushing away caregivers, family, and friends who may be the force keeping that person from becoming homeless,” the report elaborated.

But the couple that helped Garner in that field became his support, hosting him until they fell on hard times and divorced. 

Eventually, Garner’s friend helped him get a studio apartment in Evergreen, helping to pay rent for the first three months. 

“So I stayed those first three months and realized I didn't want to leave,” Garner said.

Garner said without his friend helping with first and last month’s rent and more in those first three months, he wouldn’t have been able to afford it. After the first three months, Garner continued to stay in the apartment, getting help from friends. He got what he needed, he said, but it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t how he wanted to live.

“I come from the salt of the earth, blue collar, working folk, you know, and really, at the bottom line, I'm just trying to work in any way I can,” he said. “All I'm trying to do is provide for myself.”

The housing and wage gap

Part of this difficulty, especially in Evergreen, is the gap between wages and housing costs. 

This lack of affordable housing acts doubly as a factor for becoming homeless and a barrier from escaping it.

Adam Galbraith works as a bartender at Cactus Jack’s in Evergreen. He said the only reason he can save money at all is because his 1,100-square-foot apartment has four people in it.

“If you’ve got roommates, that’s the only way you're going to save money,” he said. It’s also the only reason he can live in Evergreen, along with his landlord keeping rent lower than it could be at $1,500, “so locals would rent it.” Others he knows have seen their landlord sell the property and give them two months to get out — he’s had it happen to himself twice.

Evergreen isn’t really the place to perform hip hop on the corner, but Garner had a background in performance and music — participating in rap battles and the underground scene in his younger years under his stage name, LaKryth. After practicing, studying and preparing, he took to the streets with his guitar, not in his wheelchair, but instead standing on prosthetic legs.

“I'm a pretty damn good musician, you know, and I can sing pretty damn good too, but I'm not going to pretend like I'm oblivious to the fact that my disability and my prosthetics aren't a contributing factor to the response that I've made in the community,” Garner said.

After getting attention on social media, he began to book more gigs, participate in rap battles, and through participating in Colorado Community Media’s housing series panel discussion, met the owner of Cactus Jack’s Saloon, where he is now host of the weekly open-mic night.

He said he can’t work a job “on paper,” and he still faces struggles with his health and well-being. Garner has a roof over his head and food to eat. He says that’s all he can ask for.