Jackpot winner finds life lonely without Aspen Homeless Shelter

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
Michael Engfors shows off his winning scratch-off ticket that gave him a six-figure payday in December. He recently returned to the Aspen Homeless Shelter to help him get on the right track.
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Michael Engfors is back at home.

For him, it’s the Aspen Homeless Shelter, a place he frequented over the years for warm meals and warm nights.

But after Engfors claimed a six-figure jackpot on a scratch-off ticket he bought Dec. 4 from City Market in Aspen, it appeared he would no longer need the homeless shelter’s services.

That’s because Engfors was more than $350,000 richer, after tax deductions, thanks to scratching his way to the $500,000 triumph.

Engfors’ fortune led him to a new home, first laying his head at the new Westin hotel, Element Basalt, and later relocating to the cheaper Aspenalt Lodge a few miles up the road.

More recently though, Engfors, who is in his early 60s, has been crashing at the homeless shelter at St. Mary Catholic Church in Aspen. But it’s not because his bank account has gone dry.

“My staff has said to him, ‘Hey, Michael, you’re rich now, you don’t need to stay here,” said Vince Savage, executive director of Aspen Homeless Shelter, which has a day center by the hospital and runs the overnight shelter at St. Mary. “His explanation is that he’s coming here to stay sober, which is a complete flip. He’s in this dilemma: Wining the lottery isn’t working, and he feels sequestered in his new lonely, unsupported existence.”

Engfors also had forged friendships with other transients over the years and he had missed that camaraderie, Savage said.

Attempts to reach Engfors were unsuccessful. He previously rejected interview requests when he hit the payday at a time when he had less than a buck in his bank account.

A carpenter by trade, Engfors had relied on the homeless shelter since 2009 after he became a product of the recession.

But his scratch-off victory — he had a 1-in-840,000 chance of winning the $500,000 prize, according to the state lottery website — was a life-changer, or so it seemed.

Savage, however, is not convinced the long-shot windfall was for the better. Engfors has said he wanted to use the money to see his long-lost daughter, who lives in New York. But she informed her father that she didn’t want to see him until he sobered up, Savage said.

“I think he had a little prolonged celebrating, which we kind of anticipated him doing,” said Joe High, who sits on the homeless shelter’s board of directors and has known Engfors for 30 years. “He found it not to be fulfilling, so he’s requested to use the shelter rather than paying for the hotel, because he has to stay sober there. I think he’s been struggling with this new life situation.”

The homeless shelter provides Engfors a safe haven — it rejects guests who have a blood-alcohol level higher than .08, which is the state standard for being legally drunk. Both the day center and St. Mary Church have breathalyzer kits to keep guests honest, Savage said.

Engfors isn’t the only one with a dilemma. His return also poses one for the Aspen Homeless Shelter: Should it provide services to a person who can afford to live on his or her own?

Savage said if Engfors benefits from the shelter’s services, then the nonprofit’s purposes are achieved.

“Michael has this whole constellation of needs that he’s not getting on his own, and he’s sitting on this pile of cash,” Savage said, noting he doesn’t believe Engfors is exploiting the system. Savage said he has spoken to several of the shelter’s board members, who concurred that Engfors can still use the service.

“The real story here is a homeless man wins the lottery, gets lonely and wants to stop drinking and goes back to the homeless shelter,” Savage said. “We’re obviously doing more for people than providing shelter.”

Emzy Veazy III, who uses the overnight shelter, said he wasn’t bothered by Engfors’ return.

“It’s a nice way for him to keep himself together,” Veazy said.

High said he expects there could be some backlash for the shelter by allowing Engfors back.

“I realize people will wonder, what in the world are we doing?” High said.

But like Savage, High said the homeless shelter is helping a man who needs assistance.

“Here’s someone that has the means to provide housing for himself, but he has other needs that trump that,” High said. “And that’s trying to stay sober. The staff made the decision to let him stay for a little bit so that maybe it would help him out.”

High also theorized that Engfors could help offset any negative backlash by making a nominal donation to the Aspen Homeless Shelter.

“He paid some money for the hotels, so if he would just donate to the shelter, help some of his buddies out who don’t have a lot, some gesture like that would make him feel better,” High said.

Savage said it’s impossible for the shelter to perform financial background reports on its users. Engfors’ newfound financial footing is public knowledge and even posted on the state lottery’s website.

“Our policy it to not vet people’s financial status to be eligible for the homeless shelter,” Savage said. “It would take a lot of trouble to vet people. We’d end up turning so many people way because they don’t have IRS forms, they don’t have IDs and they’re living out of a backpack.”

Engfors, who has lived in Aspen since he was 8, paid $10 for the winning ticket. The scratch-off game’s name: Eternal Splendor.


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