Last Sunday I told the story of Joe Rivera, a star high school athlete and successful car salesman who ended up addicted to alcohol and drugs, spending his days panhandling on West Colorado Avenue until his death at age 48.
The story triggered an emotional response among Rivera’s family and readers.
The family criticized me for writing about his addiction, his arrests and his failed trips to rehabilitation centers. One relative called me a “sick, vengeful spirit,” rejecting my argument that the public needs to know the people living on our streets are humans deserving of respect and compassion who should not be dismissed or judged.
But the vast majority of online comments, phone calls and emails were supportive of my attempt to put a human face on the issue. I was humbled by the number of people who said their husbands, brothers, sisters, mothers are battling demons much the same way Rivera did.
Some readers, such as Vicki Gramm, noted that the people we see on the streets are not all addicts.
“What many people don’t know are the ones that are homeless because of a recent crisis: a loss of a job, PTSD, etc.,” Gramm wrote. “It can happen in a matter of one or two paychecks. Can you go without one?”
That sentiment was echoed by Estaven Shepard, who described the majority of the people on the street as “ordinary American citizens who are down on their luck, can’t find a job or have been victimized by our financial system, legal system or society in general.”
Several readers attributed a surge in homelessness to a lack of mental health services.
“I think unmanaged mental health regardless of the cause — PTSD, depression, diagnosed condition, abuse etc. — combined with self-medicating substance abuse will almost always lead to this outcome,” Marsha Rana Wayman said. “The takeaway from this is to try and get help as soon as possible.
“I hope someone else facing a struggle reads this, heeds the warning and decides to make a different choice today.”
Bryan Kochis wrote: “You can’t make good choices when you’re not in a healthy state of mind to begin with.”
Others were more harsh in their assessments of Rivera and the homeless in general, condemning them for making poor choices to use alcohol and drugs, for failing to stop and for refusing help.
Terry Murphy, who said he’s a firefighter working on the west side, criticized the city for not making panhandling illegal and for not locking up those found intoxicated in public and keeping them jailed until they are persuaded to change their lives.
“Have them pick up trash on the road or clean up the camping areas along the creeks,” Murphy wrote. “Make it worse for them out there than going to rehab. They need to be forced to see how bad off they are. If they are constantly given shelter, detox, ambulance rides and hospital visits for free, they have no reason to change.”
Many readers denounced that approach, saying it doesn’t recognize that addiction is not a choice and that mental illness also contributes to behaviors the rest of society views as abnormal.
Steve Brown, executive director of Westside Cares, which provides emergency services to the homeless, said many don’t understand the complexity of homelessness. And they don’t appreciate how easily people can stumble into it.
“We need to make the wider community understand that our neighbors in need are more like us than not like us,” Brown said. “It’s culturally unpopular to say, but the difference between me and Joe Rivera is not very far. That’s a scary thing to tell people.”
And that’s why Brown believes it is important to tell the stories of people such as Rivera.
“We need to recognize the people on the street are somebody’s sons and daughters and they are every bit as beloved by God as you and I,” said Brown, an ordained minister who has been at Westside Cares for 12 years.
A surprising caller agreed with Brown. It was Michele Rivera, who married Joe Rivera in 1997 and had a son with him. She said it’s important that people realize how dangerous drugs and alcohol can be and how hard they are to quit.
“They can destroy amazing people,” she said. “Without drugs or alcohol, Joe was Mr. Sunshine. He was a great father. Everyone loved him. But crack and meth turned him into a monster.
“The whole point was simply that it can happen to anyone — a stock broker or the editor of The Gazette. It can happen.”
Several readers offered condolences to Rivera’s family and friends and reminisced about his warm personality and his elite athletic ability.
David Kuosman of Boulder summed up Rivera the best:
“Thank you for your article on Joe Rivera. I know your article was really about the broader issues of homelessness and substance addiction across an over-arching backdrop of mental health concerns — and Joe Rivera was just the face for these issues, but it was a beautiful article about my friend Joe.
“Joe was one of my best friends growing up in the Springs in the late 1970s. My older brother, Carl, (along with my younger sister, Debbie) and I would spend our summers with the Rivera brothers (Joe and Gabriel) at the downtown YMCA. Joe and Gabriel were amazing and vibrant boys — hysterically funny and extremely gifted athletes. Joe was actually a better soccer player than basketball player, although I think he preferred basketball.”
Kuosman described how he and Carl would sometimes see Joe and Gabriel during their high school years at open gyms playing basketball. He was saddened to learn how his old friend’s life spiraled to a tragic end.
“I’m sure the article was difficult for Joe’s family, but you should be commended for tackling the topic in an honest, candid, non-judgmental, and non-condescending manner,” Kuosman said. “These issues are difficult and pervasive in our society and they need light cast upon them.
“And from a personal standpoint, I appreciate you reminding me of the beautiful soul that we knew as Jose (Joe) Rivera — I only hope your article initiates some wave of change in my brother to submit to long-term care for his issues. That too would be a fitting tribute to Joe.”