Instant fortune a life-changer for homeless Aspen man
Call Michael Engfors a victim of his scratch-off success. The homeless Aspen man had hoped his six-figure windfall would be kept under wraps, but he learned quickly how difficult it is to maintain a secret in small-town Aspen.
By Tuesday night, Engfors’ story was publicized on a Denver TV station and picked up by a multitude of other media outlets.
“He was a little hacked off,” said Vince Savage, who runs the Aspen Homeless shelter.
Engfors, 61, who moved to Aspen when he was 8, declined several interview requests made by The Aspen Times since Friday night. He paid $10 for a scratch-off ticket Friday at City Market, multiplying his wager by 50,000 to $500,000. With less than a dollar in his checking account, he had no place to lay his head over the weekend, save the Aspen Homeless Shelter, which has provided him care since 2009, Savage said. So on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, he slept at the shelter, his winning ticket safely stashed in his back pocket.
“He guarded it with his life,” Savage said.
On Monday, Savage drove Engfors to Grand Junction, where he visited a Colorado Lottery claim center to exchange his winning ticket for a check. Savage wouldn’t provide a specific amount after taxes were taken out, but said Engfors collected between $300,000 and $400,000.
Enfgors, who is divorced, wants to commit his winnings to finding his long-lost daughter who is in her 20s and his only child, Savage said.
Savage, hoping Engfors makes wise decisions with his winnings, said he has encouraged him to start a building business and perhaps buy a home in the area’s more affordable parts.
His scratch-off was the last of four Eternal Splendor tickets sold in Colorado that fetched a half-million dollars, said lottery spokeswoman Brooke Christopher.
Engfors, a builder who became homeless as a result of the recession, said Savage, had a one-in-840,000 chance of winning the $500,000 prize, according to the lottery website.
The website lists major lottery winners with their first name and last initial. The lottery offers the big winners photo opportunities and public announcements, but they typically decline, Christopher said.
“We do our best to protect our winners and our players if that’s what they choose,” she said.
But the story about Engfors — a homeless man in Aspen, one of the country’s most expensive places to live, winning $500,000 — couldn’t be contained.
Jeremy Kowalis, who works at the Aspen Day Center, a division of the homeless shelter, wrote his own account of Engfors’ waltz with Lady Luck, sending it to at least two media outlets. Kowalis said Engfors enjoyed the piece and wanted it publicized; Engfors told the Times he did not.
Whatever the case, the Denver station’s story expelled any chance of keeping it private.
But as the homeless shelter’s chief fundraiser, Savage said the nonprofit benefits from the publicity.
“I think at one point, when Michael had a chance to think about it, he decided he didn’t want to be a celebrity,” Savage said. “He didn’t want people to ask him to invest in offshore drilling.”
Kowalis wrote: “He went to school here. He became a successful craftsman here. He married and divorced here. He lost his business here. And now he is homeless here. But Michael never gave up. He knew that if he kept pushing on, eventually his luck would change. Today it did.”
Engfors regularly buys scratch-off tickets, Savage and Kowalis said. He purchases them with money he earns working odd jobs, they said.
“Michael works when he can,” Savage said. “We got a little blow back on Facebook, like ‘what the hell is a homeless person spending money on a lottery?’ I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. He’s spending his own money.’”
Savage said Engfors, despite his new fortune, will have challenges ahead.
“The impacts of everybody getting into your private life is significant,” Savage said. “We’re trying to protect the guy from too much at this point. We don’t know what our next step will be.”
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Alex Rager believes that the search for affordable housing in the Roaring Fork Valley can sometimes boil down to luck and timing. “When you least expect it and when you most need it is when things happen,” she said.